Having a baby is a life goal shared by many women. In fact, for most the question is not whether they will have a child, but when they will have a child. Fortunately, this goal is achieved naturally for most women, but for others, personal circumstances, career choices or medical conditions can pose limitations to becoming a mother.
Recent advances in fertility treatment have given women more flexibility and options to plan for motherhood through such popular technology as oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing) and embryo cryopreservation (embryo freezing). In the media, egg freezing is often treated as trendy or a frivolous lifestyle choice. However for some women, it is the only current option they have available for protecting their reproductive future.
Women may freeze their eggs for various reasons. Circumstances can include health-related causes such as a recent diagnosis of cancer, rapidly declining ovarian function, endometriosis or a family history of early menopause. Unexpected changes in a social or personal situation, such as divorce, can also prompt some women to take advantage of their egg viability for future pregnancy. Whether it’s a decision based on career, educational pursuits, current social or health circumstances, egg freezing offers the same option for all women: it preserves their current fertility, leaving their reproductive options open for the future.
Egg freezing, through a rapid freezing process called vitrification, offers is a reliable option for proactive women who do not want their age to dictate personal life goals and decisions. Vitrified eggs demonstrate strong survival, fertilization, and embryotic development rates after thawing several years later. Pregnancy rates and the incidence of miscarriage or genetic abnormalities will be based on the age of the woman at the time of her egg freeze, not on her age when she uses the eggs.
When is the best time to freeze eggs? Female fertility begins declining slightly in the 20s but pregnancy rates will remain high into the mid 30s. From the mid to late 30s, the decline starts to accelerate. In addition, women over 35 have an increased risk of miscarriage and offspring with chromosomal abnormalities as a result of age-dependent changes in egg quality. Therefore, from a simply clinical standpoint, egg freezing is optimal and most reliable when done in the early 30s, but is ultimately a personal decision and must be individualized for each woman depending on her circumstances.
The process of egg freezing starts with the evaluation of a woman’s ovarian reserve –an estimate of the quantity of eggs in her ovaries. The evaluation consists of a combination of reproductive hormone blood tests and an ultrasound of the ovaries. With these results, we can determine if egg freezing is right for you and help tailor your treatment regimen.
Egg freezing is very similar to the beginning of a typical in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle. The process lasts about 2 weeks during which you will give yourself daily hormone injections to stimulate the ovaries. In our office, we will monitor the growth of your egg follicles using blood tests and ultrasounds. At the end of the 2 weeks, the eggs are then retrieved under deep sedation and immediately frozen. When you are ready to use the eggs in the future, they will be thawed and combined with sperm from your male partner or a sperm donor.
Women seek egg and embryo freezing for similar reasons. The main difference is that instead of freezing unfertilized eggs, eggs are fertilized with sperm from a male partner or donor sperm prior to freezing. The frozen embryo can later simply be immediately thawed and transferred to achieve pregnancy. Embryo freezing is actually a more reliable and excellent option for fertility preservation in women with a male partner or for women with limitations in egg quality and/or quantity.
Today’s woman has numerous opportunities when it comes to planning not only for her career but also for her future family. While some women who freeze their eggs may not use them in the future by getting pregnant naturally, it is a great option for women who know that they want to have a baby later when the timing is right. Women who freeze their eggs are not simply delaying pregnancy; they are making a conscious choice to protect their chance for motherhood. In fact, experts predict that egg freezing, like the birth control pill, will have the potential to empower women when it comes to taking charge of their reproductive future and extending their fertility potential.
Dr. Nurudeen is double board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. She is a member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, Houston Gynecological and Obstetrical Society, Houston Medical Forum and Mary Susan Moore Medical Society. She is the new Medical Director of the Sparkles of Life IVF Grant and has special interests in fertility preservation, diminished ovarian reserve, ovarian aging, and third party reproduction (egg donation and gestational carriers). Dr. Nurudeen is the Director of Fertility Preservation at Houston Fertility Institute in Houston, TX.
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