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In vitro fertilisation (IVF)

IVF is a type of fertility treatment where fertilisation takes place outside of the body. It’s suitable for people with a wide range of fertility issues and is one of the most commonly used and successful treatments available for many people. This page will introduce you to how IVF works, the risks and current success rates.

What is IVF?

IVF is a common treatment for people who are unable to conceive naturally. It involves collecting a woman’s eggs and fertilising them manually with sperm in the lab. If fertilisation is successful, the embryo is allowed to develop for between two and six days and is then transferred back to the woman’s womb to hopefully continue to a successful birth.

Often several embryos will be created through fertilising the eggs. In these cases it's normally best practice to freeze the remaining embryos rather than having two embryos put back in the womb, as this increases your chance of having twins or triplets. You can then use your frozen embryos later on if your first cycle is unsuccessful or you want to try for another baby.

Find out more about embryo freezing 

Find out more about the risks of fertility treatment

Decisions to make about your embryos

Who might be recommended to have IVF?

  • Women with blocked or damaged fallopian tubes.
  • People with unexplained fertility problems, or who have tried other treatments that were unsuccessful.
  • Men with low sperm counts or who have high numbers of sperm with an abnormal shape or movement. Where these problems are serious an additional procedure (intracytoplasmic sperm injection or ICSI) may be necessary.
  • Women who have difficulty with ovulation and who haven’t been successful with other treatments.
  • Older women who are less likely to be successful with more natural/less invasive treatments.

Is there anyone IVF isn’t right for?

Not everyone needs IVF. For example, some problems with ovulation may be corrected with drug treatment alone so it’s important you understand all your options before going ahead.

Find out more about fertility drugs

IVF might not be suitable for some people because it’s very unlikely to succeed, particularly in the case of older women, or those who are at risk of premature menopause. You should talk to your doctor about your personal chances of success with IVF.

How safe is IVF?

IVF is a safe procedure for most people. The main risk from IVF treatment is having a multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets or more). Although many people would welcome having twins or triplets, multiple pregnancies can cause serious health problems to both mum and babies.

The other big risk is having a bad reaction to your fertility drugs, which can lead to ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome (OHSS). This is a rare complication that can be fatal if it’s not picked up quickly enough.

It’s very important you understand all the risks of IVF and know when to spot the symptoms of something serious.

Find out more about the risks of fertility treatment

Can I have IVF on the NHS?

It depends on where you live as decisions around who can have IVF on the NHS are made locally rather than nationally. Talk to your GP about what's available in your area.

If you do need to pay for treatment, one cycle of IVF including fertility drugs normally costs between £3000 and £5000, although bear in mind there may be additional costs such as the cost of storing your embryos or going for an initial appointment.

Find out more about costs and funding 

How long does one cycle of IVF take?

It depends on your recommended treatment. For most women one cycle of IVF will take between four and six weeks. However, for medical reasons some women won’t have the first stage of treatment (suppressing your hormone production) which brings their treatment time down to around three weeks. Your doctor will advise you on the most appropriate treatment for you.

How successful is one cycle of IVF?

As with all treatments, how successful the treatment will be depends on the woman’s age and the cause of infertility. A cycle is one round of IVF treatment from when you start taking your drugs to when the embryo is transferred to your womb.

When we had our first cycle of IVF we just assumed it would work. You read all those 'miracle baby' stories in the media but you rarely hear about the people who weren't successful.

What are the birth rates if you have more than one cycle of IVF?

The below percentages show the average chance of a birth after one, two, three and four cycles of IVF depending on your age. After four cycles, there are very small increases in the average chance of a birth across all ages. 85% of people have one or two cycles of IVF. Only 5% of people have more than three cycles.

Chances of a live birth – women under 40

One cycle – 32%

Two cycles – 49%

Three cycles – 58%

Four cycles – 63%

Chances of a live birth – women aged 40 to 42

One cycle – 12%

Two cycles – 20%

Three cycles – 25%

Four cycles – 28%

Chances of a live birth – women aged over 42

One cycle – 4%

Two cycles – 6%

Three cycles – 8%

Four cycles – 9%

What does a typical IVF cycle look like?

This process outlines a single cycle of IVF following the most commonly used procedure. You may find that your treatment is slightly different depending on your history and what your clinic thinks is best for you.

  • Medication taken as a daily injection or nasal spray will suppress your natural hormone production. This will give your doctor complete control of the fertility process.
  • You’ll have a scan to check your natural cycle is fully suppressed. If it is you’ll start hormone treatment (usually gonadotrophin) to boost the number of eggs your body produces.
  • A day or two before your eggs are due to be collected you’ll be given a hormone injection (normally human chorionic gonadotrophin or hCG) to help the eggs mature.
  • Your eggs will be collected whilst you’re sedated or under general anaesthetic. The procedure takes around half an hour and you may feel a little sore or bruised.
  • Whilst your eggs are being collected, your partner will be asked to produce a sperm sample (or your donor sperm will be taken from the freezer) for mixing with your eggs.
  • Medication will help to prepare the lining of your womb. This is usually taken as a pessary or gel which you can insert yourself into the vagina.
  • Your eggs will be checked for signs that fertilisation has taken place. If they have they’ll be monitored to ensure they’re developing into embryos.
  • The embryos will be transferred to your womb. You probably won’t need any kind of anaesthetic for this unless you have a condition that would make the procedure painful.
  • You’ll be given a date to do a pregnancy test. Although you’ll understandably be excited at this stage try not to do this early as you may get a false result.

Find out more about IVF options

It’s possible to have IVF with no fertility drugs at all (natural cycle IVF) or with fewer drugs (mild stimulation IVF and in vitro maturation [IVM]). These may be appropriate for women who can’t take drugs because of an existing medical condition or who prefer not to for personal reasons. Success rates tend to be lower when you don’t use fertility drugs and in the case of natural IVF are significantly lower.

Find out more about having less medicated forms of IVF

Where can I find an IVF clinic?

We have details of every licensed IVF clinic on our website, including their opening times, donor waiting times, success rates and ratings from both patients and our inspectors. It's a great place to start browsing for clinics or to find out a bit more about a clinic you've been referred to. 

Choose a fertility clinic

What to look for in a clinic

I’ve had IVF and it didn’t work – what next?

Many experts recommend that you wait for a couple of months after treatment before trying again. This gives you a break from the stress of treatment and a chance for your body to recover. It can also be an important time to think about your options and decide whether to continue treatment. If you’re not able to continue treatment, you may wish to explore other options for having a family.

Coping if treatment doesn't work 

Couple take shelter from the rain under an umbrella

"We were thrilled to find we were pregnant when the first blastocyst was put back in but then I miscarried at 9 weeks, which was heart-breaking."

Read Saskia's story

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Review date: 5 July 2019

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