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What support is there for secondary infertility?

20 July 2020

Secondary infertility is when a couple has one or more successful pregnancies but is now struggling to conceive again. The causes and treatments for secondary infertility might be the same as for primary infertility, but IVF is only available on the NHS for couples who do not have children.

Desperately wanting a second baby can be just as hard as trying for your first but mired in a swirl of complex emotions. Parents know that compared to childless couples they are lucky, and of course, they love and cherish their firstborn, but this doesn’t negate the strength of yearning they feel to have another baby. Then they may experience guilt for feeling that their one child isn’t enough for them, or they may feel like failures for not being able to produce a sibling for that child.

Consequently, the condition is often far less discussed than primary infertility and couples can feel unsupported. Laura, 38 from Bristol shared her story.

Laura’s first pregnancy with her husband happened very soon after they started trying in her early 30s. “It was a shock it happened so quickly,” she said. “A welcome shock, but we had a few friends who'd struggled, and we didn't take it for granted that it would come easily.”

Laura took time to enjoy her baby and to give her body a break but thought a three-year gap between children would be ideal so they started trying again when her son was two and a half and she was approaching 34.

“After about six months we started to worry. It happened so quickly before that it seemed odd, but you can't get help from the NHS until you've been trying for a year, so we ploughed on. When that passed and still no pregnancy, I went to the doctor who told me that they couldn't help us with fertility because we had a kid, but suggested I lose weight, stop drinking and destress.”

Laura followed the advice, quitting a stressful job, losing two stones and cutting back on drink, but the emotional strain of desperately wanting a second child was taking its toll.

“It was really stressful,” she says. “My friends who had kids the same age as my son were having their second and even third babies. I felt surrounded by pregnancy and birth announcements and we had to deal with the inevitable questions: ‘isn't it about time you started trying for another?’”

Tamsin was also in her 30s when she tried for a second child and she wrestled with a raft of emotions. “My daughter has sobbed in my arms because she has no siblings,” she says.“How do I not feel like I have let her down?”

Tamsin also didn’t appreciate the well-meaning comments from people telling her she was lucky to have her daughter Tabitha. “I constantly get that and I have to admit that it drives me nuts,” she says.“Was there some kind of queue that I stood in and when I got to the front it turned out that there was only one child left? At first, it really threw me and had me in tears. You are sitting in this place of complete frustration and sadness and someone makes you feel as if you are a vile human being because, by wanting another child, you are disrespecting the child you already have.”

As well as taking supplements to boost her wellbeing, Laura was able to request blood tests to check her hormone levels, and because her periods were erratic had a scan which confirmed nothing was wrong. “It was dubbed ‘unexplained secondary infertility’and that was the hardest bit,” she says. I'm a solutions-focussed person and there was nothing I could do because there was no identifiable problem.

Tests on her husband also showed everything was fine. After two years of trying, the strain was really affecting her. “I've always been strong-minded and resilient but I was a mess,” says Laura.

Full of self-doubt, jealousy, rage. Something I wanted so much seemed totally unreachable, out of my control. It wasn't just a surface-level desire but deep-seated. It was physical -tied up with my womanhood. My body was crying out for it but was not playing ball

“I knew I couldn't go on like that. I had to focus on what I did have: a beautiful healthy four-year-old and loving husband. I’d seen couples battling infertility for ten years and it almost destroyed them. I didn’t want that to be my life and we couldn't afford IVF so I had no option but to accept it,” she says. Of course, as often seems to be the way, no sooner had Laura adjusted to the idea of being a one-child family, she fell pregnant right after she’d donated all the baby stuff to charity. Her sons are now two and seven. She loves them dearly but admits the emotional toll it took on her and her husband was a heavy one.

Laura’s top tip for other couples is to talk about it, and because the incidence of secondary infertility is increasing, there are more forums for women to share their experiences. “If people know you're struggling they may not be so insensitive,” she says. “I shared online a picture I drew to explain how I was feeling and instantly half a dozen friends contacted me to say they were battling infertility too. Much of the support is geared to women who have no children, but I'm seeing more and more people sharing their stories of secondary infertility. When I shared mine I felt pretty alone, but you're definitely not.” 

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