More would-be parents exploring over-the-counter products to aid conception

Juliana and Greg Tomlinson started trying to have a baby on their wedding night, October 8, 2011. After a year without success, the Lancaster, Pa. couple says doctors diagnosed double trouble: Greg has a low sperm count and Juliana has polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that can make ovulation irregular. The Tomlinsons endured months of hormone treatments, and a heartbreaking miscarriage in 2014. Their Catholic faith put in vitro fertilization out of consideration.

Last February, their hopes soared when Juliana noticed an at-home insemination kit at the pharmacy. The over-the-counter device, called the Stork, helps deliver sperm to the cervix and keeps them there for hours, to increase the chance of fertilization. Their first attempt with it was unsuccessful. But the Tomlinsons are on a vitamin regime and plan to try the Stork again. “It’s important to keep your hopes high,” Juliana says.

Many would-be parents are turning to at-home products to help them conceive—before, during and after seeking professional treatment for infertility. The growing do-it-yourself arsenal ranges from devices that mechanically assist the uniting sperm and egg, to tests that diagnose what’s going wrong. Some are Food and Drug Administration approved; some are MacGyver-esque uses for ordinary household items.

They all offer couples more privacy than going to a fertility clinic, and at far less cost. A standard workup for fertility issues can cost hundreds of dollars. A cycle of invitro fertilization costs $12,500 on average, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and is seldom covered by insurance.

Fertility experts say some at-home products are helpful but others may be harmful. They caution couples against believing everything they read online. “There’s a lot of emotion surrounding pregnancy and people look to do whatever they can to increase their odds and avoid seeing me,” says reproductive endocrinologist Brian Levine, New York practice director for the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, a multistate fertility practice.

An estimated 10 percent to 12 percent of U.S. couples are struggling with infertility, defined as not being able to conceive despite frequent unprotected sex for at least one year, or six months for women over age 35. Many more are impatient, experts say. And a growing number of single women and gay and lesbian couples eager to start families are using do-it-yourself conception kits with donor sperm or surrogates.

Doctors say the most useful products help couples understand and monitor the woman’s monthly cycles. “Some couples are just having sex at the wrong time,” says Dr. Levine.

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