For the most part, it's common knowledge that, once a woman stops having her period, then she also stops having the ability to have children. Or at least it was, until news reports highlight that women past childbearing age—like Omaha native Cecile Edge, at 61 years old—are able to give birth to their own grandchildren in some instances.
So what gives? Can you give birth after menopause? Health asked ob-gyns about any misconceptions that may be had around if (and how) someone can give birth after hitting menopause—and what to know about giving birth past childbearing age.
So, can you get pregnant after menopause?
“The answer to that is: Yes,” Julian Peskin, MD, an ob-gyn at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health—but before you know exactly how (and why), you need to know a bit about how menopause works to begin with.
Menopause itself is a single point in time 12 months after a woman has her last period, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). When you're no longer getting your period, your body is officially done with its reproductive years for good, and you cannot get pregnant naturally after menopause.
You can, however, get pregnant during perimenopause, or the lead-up to menopause. During perimenopause, women can have irregular periods, along with other perimenopausal symptoms, for quite a while until they officially hit menopause. According to the Office on Women's Health, perimenopause typically starts when a woman is in her mid-40s, and can last about four years until periods fully stop.
That means, until you've officially hit menopause, you can still conceive naturally, says Dr. Peskin. "You ovulate infrequently, but you still ovulate," he says. So, even if you're going through perimenopause, if you don't want to get pregnant, it's wise to still use a birth control method, Margaret Nachtigall, MD, an ob-gyn at NYU Langone, tells Health.
What if you want to get pregnant after you’ve hit menopause?
Okay, so let's say you've already hit menopause—meaning you haven't had a period in 12 months or more—but you would still like to get pregnant. Luckily, if that's your choice, science is on your side through a process called in vitro fertilization (IVF).
According to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), IVF is essentially the joining of a woman's egg with a man's sperm, outside of the woman's body (so, in a laboratory dish). In women who are of childbearing age, there are five steps to IVF: stimulation, egg retrieval, insemination and fertilization, embryo culture, and embryo transfer. However, because women who have already gone through menopause are not producing eggs, they do not need to go through the first two steps, and will instead have to use eggs from a donor.
From there, it's like any other IVF pregnancy: Once a fertilized egg divides and become an embryo outside of the body, per the NLM, it's placed inside the woman's womb, where she can carry the embryo, then fetus, to term.
Of course, getting pregnant via IVF, like all pregnancies, comes with risks. But, if you’re otherwise healthy, an IVF-induced pregnancy after menopause won’t necessarily bring any new risks to the table. The risks are the typical risks associated with pregnancy, explains Dr. Nachtigall. (Think: high blood pressure, preeclampsia, infections, preterm labor, etc.) And some women who try IVF after menopause don’t have to worry about certain age-related pregnancy complications. “Since you’re using an egg from a younger person, there’s no increased risk of chromosomal abnormalities,” says Dr. Peskin, who has worked with women in their fifties who have had children this way.
The bottom line: If you haven’t yet reached menopause but are perimenopausal, you can definitely still get pregnant. But if you’ve already hit menopause when you decide you want to consider motherhood, it’s not necessarily “too late" for that, either.
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