About one-fifth of people who relied on fertility treatment like in vitro fertilization (IVF) for their first child are likely to get pregnant naturally in the future, according to an analysis using birthing data across 40 years.
Researchers at the University of College London evaluated the likelihood of subsequent pregnancies for those who depended on fertility treatment to have their first child—using 11 studies encompassing over 5,000 women from 1980 to 2021. The findings were published Tuesday in Human Reproduction.
“Our findings suggest that natural pregnancy after having a baby by IVF is far from rare. This is in contrast with widely held views – by women and health professionals – and those commonly expressed in the media, that it is a highly unlikely event,” Dr. Annette Thwaites, author of the study and researcher at the EGA Institute for Women’s Health at the University of College London, said in a press release.
Since IVF was first introduced in the late 1970s, it’s become much more widespread as the WHO reports about 9% of men and 11% of women have infertility issues.
A 2018 Pew study found a third of Americans have either used fertility treatments or know someone who has used them; In 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported slightly over 2% of U.S. pregnancies occur from assisted reproductive technologies (ART); Around the same time, since the start of the technology, over 8 million babies had been born globally using IVF.
Education on fertility
Researchers consider the findings to be particularly important, as many people may not realize that they can conceive naturally following fertility treatment.
“Oftentimes, people are just being referred directly to IVF clinics, even if they’ve got a chance to conceive naturally,” Dr. Neel Shah, an OBGYN and the chief medical director at Maven, tells Fortune. “We’ve seen more of that trend over time.”
As people navigate their specific fertility circumstances, the study highlights the importance of accurate information so people understand their chances and can make decisions. Shah says providers should focus on providing patients with the right services, by understanding their particular symptoms and circumstances—which can be challenging as about a third of infertility cases are unexplained.
“IVF is like the pitstop on the journey. What people want is the shortest pathway to a healthy baby,” he says. “If ARP is the right way to do it, then we should make sure people have access, but if they are able to conceive naturally, we should be helping them with that.”
For those who may assume they cannot conceive naturally, it could lead to them becoming pregnant again quickly or when they aren’t ready—which could be problematic for both the health of the caregiver and child.
Dr. Shema Tariq found out her odds of conceiving naturally were extremely low, so she underwent six rounds of IVF to have her son. At age 43, she says she was told her odds for having another baby naturally were less than 1%. But less than a year later, she found out she was pregnant.
“My GP briefly mentioned contraception to me after he was born, but we both laughed and agreed that it wasn’t relevant. It never occurred to me that I might get pregnant (despite being a sexual health doctor),” she says in the press release. “She has been the most wonderful surprise, but when we first found out I felt overwhelmed and unprepared for another pregnancy.”
As infertility can lead to a range of mental and physical health challenges, it’s important for those looking to have a child to be armed with the right information.
“People want the shortest pathway to having a healthy baby, and so it’s actually one of the only areas of health care we have such a clear objective function” Shah says. “The big takeaway from this study is that we’re not doing that right now.”
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