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What to expect when going through solo fertility treatment

3 October 2020

It’s estimated that around 20,000 babies are born through IVF in the UK every year. The first test tube baby was born in Greater Manchester in 1978. Since then IVF and fertility treatment have opened up the options for couples and single people to explore their options when starting a family. Starting fertility treatment can be daunting. However, the process is more accessible than ever before. Here’s what to expect when you start solo fertility treatment.

Since fertility treatments began to successfully be developed over 40 years ago so many families' lives have been changed. And as treatment has progressed differing family structures have developed. When you’re trying to have a family it can feel like the pressure is seriously on. Studies have linked a rise in depression and anxiety among parents trying to conceive. The desire to have a family can become the only thing you think about. So, if you’re a single person wanting to start a family alone things can be doubly difficult. It can feel like the usual advice of regular timed sex does’t apply and telling loved ones about your desire to get pregnant can be scary.

However, it was estimated in 2019 that 14.9% of households were lone parent households. Similarly, the number of people living alone has increased by a fifth over the last 20 years. More people are making the decision not to get married and developments in fertility treatment mean you no longer have to wait for “the one” to start growing your family.

According to the government's advisory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the number of single women choosing to have IVF is up 35% since 2014. The number of treatments for patients without a partner has increased nationally accounting for more than 1,000 procedures. That’s 2% of all treatments. This may be down to increased awareness for fertility treatments and decreased stigmatisation of lone parent households. So, if you’re considering seeking treatment as a single person but don’t know where to start, it’s likely that the support and procedures you receive won’t be that different to couples going through the same thing.

How a solo fertility journey is different to couples

Taking the first step to exploring fertility treatment as a single person can be daunting. However, more single people than ever before are opting to go it alone. A partner can be an amazing resource when you first start out on your fertility journey. This doesn’t mean a romantic partner. Having a friend or family member who knows exactly what you’re doing and how you’re feeling can help you make sense of things in the early stages of treatment.

Selina Wilkinson is the lead on the donation program at CAREfertility. She oversees new patients coming in and seeking fertility treatment. “While looking for solo fertility treatment may seem like a step away from the norm, in the entire time that I’ve worked for CARE there hasn’t been a massive difference to the process that couples go through,” says Wilkinson, “getting an appointment can be really easy because you’re only working around one diary rather than two. A solo patient may just need a few more appointments because they’re using donor sperm.”

A solo person's route into fertility treatment may look a little different if they opt to use a sperm donor. However, the resources and support from your doctors will be the same as if you were part of a couple. Wilkinson says, “make use of the Donor Conception Network and speak to parents who have been through it too. Your clinic may also offer counselling and you should have all the information laid out to you beforehand.”

Different types of fertility treatment

Depending on your circumstances, health, and age there are different fertility treatment options available to patients. The three main types are medical, surgical, and assisted conception.

Medical fertility treatment involves medications and hormones that encourage the body to ovulate in women and some also improve fertility in men. Clomifene, Tamoxifen, Metformin, and Gonadotrophins may all be used to stimulate ovulation to encourage natural conception. However, if you’re seeking solo fertility treatment medical procedures may not be applicable.

Surgical procedures may help to rectify damage to the reproductive organs. This is helpful if you suffer with endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome.

However, for a patient embarking on solo fertility treatment it’s most likely that you’ll explore assisted conception techniques. When you’re looking into assisted reproductive procedures you’ll have a number of options. Intrauterine insemination is when sperm is inserted into the womb through a thin plastic tube through the cervix. The sperm may be obtained through a sperm donor. Another option is in vitro fertilisation. IVF is where your doctor fertilises an egg outside of your body. You’ll be given a course of medicine to encourage your ovaries to produce more eggs than usual to give you the best chance of getting pregnant. Your doctor will collect the eggs and once fertilised will put them back into your womb so they can develop. Sperm donation is commonly used in IVF.

How to pick a sperm donor

If you’re going through solo fertility treatment then you may opt to use a sperm donor. This may lengthen the time of your treatment and may be where things get a little different than couples seeking treatment. “Depending on where you source your sperm it can delay treatment. In the UK there’s a shortage of sperm donors which is something we are trying to combat,” says Wilkinson, “due to this shortage there’s a lot less information on UK donors.”

When you’re picking a sperm donor and sperm bank you can also look overseas. Different clinics may use different suppliers. The International California website and European donor sites hold a lot more information about donors. It’s generally personal preference how much information you have about a donor before picking them. However, Wilkinson says, “we’ve noticed that single people like to have as much information on the donor as they can. Similarly, same sex couples like having a lot of information on their donor. This differs as hetrosexual couples may not look into it as much due to discomfort between the partners.”

Depending on where you choose to get your sperm donation from, you may be able to see personal characteristics about the donor. This could include their height, weight, blood type, ethnicity, hair, and eye colour. You also may be able to access information on their personality. How much or how little you want to know is really up to you.

Legal considerations in fertility treatment

When you’re going through fertility treatment and using a donor you’ll be the sole legal parent when your child is born. This can get a little bit complicated if you’re dating someone or you’re married and are separated but not divorced.

Wilkinson explains, “we’ve had situations historically where two people have split up but they’re not divorced yet and the use of donor sperm affects the legal parenthood of that child. Similarly, if you’re in a new relationship you need to be clear as to who that person would be in relation to parenting.”

Emotional support through fertility treatment

Once you’ve decided on the best fertility treatment for you with your doctor and chosen a sperm donor you can begin treatment. However, studies have documented the emotional and mental strain that fertility treatment can put on you. This isn’t something you should feel like you have to do alone and they say it takes a village to raise a child. However, having your support network around you from the beginning of treatment right through until the time when the child is born is so crucial.

In 2018, Rebecca decided to embark on a solo fertility journey with CAREfertility. She discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells on her cervix. Her consultant told her if she wanted to have children she’d have to think about it soon. “I had friends who had undergone fertility treatment and once I had the all clear from my doctor I spoke to CARE,” says Rebecca, “I chose to have IVF and after my second embryo my daughter was conceived.”

While her friends and family were shocked after Rebecca told them she was going to embark on getting pregnant, they’ve become her biggest support network. “Treatment can be quite stressful and it really becomes everything in your life. When I was going through the treatment my parents and sister were always on hand. I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Rebecca.

Keeping a select group of close ones in the loop while you’re going through treatment is so crucial. Similarly, Wilkinson explains that clinic counsellors and groups are on-hand to support patients with whatever they need. “We’ve had some patients who have found it hard to tell colleagues and friends but there’s support from the Donor Conception Network and there’s groups for solo mums,” says Wilkinson, “and we would ask everyone going through fertility treatment what kind of support they have within their families, even if it’s to attend antenatal appointments and labour.”

Starting fertility treatment as a single person can seem daunting. However, treatment has progressed to give patients more options than ever before. Ensuring you have a tight support network to help you through treatment is key but the stigma towards lone parenting through fertility treatment is a thing of the past.

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