There may be no simple way to explain sperm donor conception to children too young to understand "the birds and the bees," but parents may still find these conversations flow more easily when they begin at an early age, a small Swedish study suggests.
Even though using reproductive technology is no longer shrouded in secrecy in many parts of the world, Sweden remains one of just a handful of countries that don't permit anonymous sperm donation. That means parents who conceive this way must consider how to explain it to their children, and kids have a right to contact donors.
Sweden's backdrop of mandatory donor identity disclosure offers a unique opportunity to consider how these conversations about conception unfold from the perspective of both parents and young children, researchers note in the journal Human Reproduction.
"Talking with a child about 'the birds and the bees' is for many parents not an easy task, and for parents with a donor-conceived child this might be even more challenging," said lead study author Stina Isaksson, a public health researcher at Uppsala University.
"This study, along with several others, points out that children whose parents start talking with them at a relatively young age do not react in a negative way to the information," Isaksson added.
To analyze what transpires during these discussions, researchers interviewed 30 heterosexual Swedish parents of donor-conceived children when the kids were 7 or 8 years old.
Often, parents initiated discussions and then kept the conversations going, the study found. Parents said they did this because they believed their child had a right to know about their origins and because starting the conversation early can help make the child grow up comfortable talking about the subject.
For some, they broached sperm donation early because they feared children might hear about it from another person if they didn't. Some parents also felt they grew up with family secrets that caused a crisis when the truth was ultimately revealed.
Once conversations got started, the children often were the force that propelled discussions forward, the study found. When children didn't press for more details, or seemed upset about the idea of having a sperm donor father out in the world somewhere, parents might pause the conversation and wait for children to bring it up again another time.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the complexity of these discussions, parents and children also appeared to have mixed emotions about the conversations as they unfolded.
For some parents, revealing the use of a sperm donor brought up painful memories of fertility challenges, while in other instances getting this information out in the open provided a sense of relief.
While the study is too small and limited in scope to draw broad conclusions about how all parents and children might react to discussions about sperm donation, the findings do suggest that there may not be much harm in starting the conversations when kids are still quite young, the researchers conclude.
"The results of the study confirm the importance of information sharing in families that have used donated gametes," said Ken Daniels, a researcher at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who wasn't involved in the study.
"It's good to see that parents recognize that they must take the initiative but then be very aware of different responses that may come from their children," Daniels said by email. "It is important that parents answer the questions that are asked."