What Is IVF and How Long Does It Take?

IVF is one of the most common and most successful fertility treatments available. Here, a fertility doctor breaks down exactly what happens during each step of the process, from egg retrieval to fertilization and embryo transfer.

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So you've been struggling to conceive, visited a fertility specialist, and gone through all the necessary tests to determine the offending issue. If your doctor decides that IVF is the right course of treatment for you, here’s what you can expect from the process, which Aaron K. Styer, M.D., reproductive endocrinologist and co-medical director of CCRM Boston, explains can be broken down into five key steps or phases:

Step 1

A combination of several injectable fertility medications are prescribed to stimulate egg production. During this time, transvaginal ultrasounds are conducted routinely (every one to three days, depending on the patient and the clinic) to examine the ovaries and monitor egg growth, while blood tests keep track of hormone levels and help your fertility specialist watch the development of the follicles on the ovaries that ultimately produce egg cells.

Step 2

Eggs are harvested through a minor surgical procedure called, appropriately enough, egg retrieval. Via ultrasound imaging, a hollow needle is guided through the pelvic cavity to remove the eggs. Anesthetizing medication is provided to achieve what’s known as “conscious sedation” to reduce any potential discomfort, Dr. Styer notes.

Step 3

A sample of the male partner’s (or a donor’s) sperm is “washed” (i.e. separated from the semen) for combining with the just-retrieved eggs.

Step 4

In a process called insemination, the sperm and eggs are placed together in a petri dish and stored that way to facilitate fertilization.

In some cases for which there is a lower probability of fertilization, a process known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) is used. During this procedure, a single sperm is injected directly into the egg to achieve fertilization (though fertilizing an egg this way still doesn’t guarantee the creation of an embryo that can then be transferred to a woman’s uterus). The egg and sperm are monitored to confirm that fertilization and cell division are taking place.

Step 5

An embryo (or embryos) is transferred to the woman's uterus. This typically happens three to five days following egg retrieval and fertilization, via a catheter inserted into the uterus. This procedure is painless for most women, Dr. Styer says, though some may experience mild cramping. If the procedure is successful, implantation typically occurs six to 10 days after egg retrieval in cases where “fresh,” not frozen, embryos are used. Which means, congrats! You're pregnant!

An average IVF cycle takes about six weeks from consultation to transfer.

Still have questions about getting pregnant? Check out our fertility FAQ here.

Editors’ note: We use the terms “woman” and “female” in this article to refer to people with internal reproductive organs; however we understand that not everyone with internal reproductive organs identifies as a woman or a female. We use the terms “man” and “male” to refer to people with external reproductive organs; however we understand that not everyone with external reproductive organs identifies as a man or a male.

Jennifer Gerson

Jennifer Gerson is a Maggie Award-winning journalist whose reporting on reproductive rights, women's health, and sexual violence regularly appears in Cosmopolitan, as well as The Guardian, Yahoo, Allure, Teen Vogue, Mic and other national publications.