More and more women are taking their fertility and parenthood into their own hands. When it comes to conceiving solo, some women are prioritizing their timelines over finding the “right” partner, and some are opting to go solo because it feels like the right parenting choice for them.
There’s no wrong way to have a family, but there’s no doubt that it can be a bit more complicated alone — knowledge and support is more important than ever.
We got the scoop on solo conception from Donna Crowe, MD, an OB-GYN based in Nashville, TN. And we heard all about building a “village” of support from English Taylor, a San Francisco-based birth doula.
First things first: what are the options for getting pregnant?
According to Dr. Crowe, she’s seeing “more and more variety in how families are created.” She says the most common way she sees women conceive without a partner is by artificial insemination with semen purchased from a sperm bank. Artificial insemination is the injection of semen into a woman’s reproductive system other than through sex.
One artificial insemination method is called ICI (intracervical insemination), in which sperm is inserted into the cervix. This can be done at home and is what you might have heard of as “turkey basting.” For the record, yes, you technically could use a turkey baster. But is it the best method? Nope…a disposable syringe is the recommended way to go. There are also tools you won’t find in the kitchen drawer coming on the market, like at-home insemination kits with instructions. Each round of ICI costs about $200 to $350 with a kit and sperm banking (more on that soon). According to Dr. Crowe, “each cycle carries with it a 35 percent chance of success. Most women are successful within six months and, if they are not, should consider further evaluation.” If there are no known fertility issues, this method is likely the least invasive and least expensive one.
Then there’s IUI (intrauterine insemination), in which sperm is inserted directly into the uterus by a licensed care provider. IUI can take place during the ovulation point of a woman’s natural cycle, or timed with medications to induce ovulation. And why not just “turkey baste” instead? Dr. Crowe tells us that, “IUI offers sperm a greater chance at survival by bypassing the cervix.” And for this method, sperm is often “washed,” which just means that the sperm is separated from the seminal fluids so that only the sperm cells are injected into the uterus. It can cost between $300 and $800 per cycle for IUI, according to Advanced Fertility.
Finally, with IVF (in-vitro fertilization), fertilization occurs outside the body, with an egg and donor sperm. About two to five days after the eggs are fertilized in a clinic, one or more is inserted into the uterus. (The remaining eggs could be preserved for future use.) IVF is usually one of the last options tried, because it’s the most expensive; it costs about $15,000 per cycle, not including hormonal medications, which could add another $3,000 to $5,000. And according to Resolve (The National Infertility Association), it takes about three rounds of IVF to reach a 66 percent success rate. Insurance may cover some of these costs, but according to Business Insider, only 15 states require health insurance companies to provide infertility treatment. Here’s a helpful list of infertility financing programs, and you can always speak with a trusted provider about other financial support that may be available to you.
One more note on IVF: the egg could be your own, or the IVF could be a combination of both donor sperm and a donor embryo. According to Dr. Crowe, those adoptable embryos are often surplus from another person’s in vitro process. She notes, “After they have had the children they desire, they may find themselves with many embryos stored and cannot fathom destroying them. These embryos are then available for others who are struggling.”
Now that we’ve covered all the acronyms, where’s the sperm actually coming from when conceiving solo?
A different kind of banking...
A sperm bank, also referred to as a cryobank, is a facility that collects, freezes, and stores human sperm.
We asked Dr. Crowe why someone might choose to use a sperm bank over, say, a sample from a friend. She says, “A sperm bank offers the woman an opportunity to choose characteristics in the donor that are important to her such as personality traits, appearance, family history, and/or intelligence. Many women will buy multiple vials of sperm from the same donor so as to have the option for all of her children to be full-blooded siblings.”
And what about the legal rights? Dr. Crowe shares, “We have had a handful women use the “turkey baster” method over the years where the use sperm from a friend or friends in the baster and inject into the vagina to inseminate at home. Although one can easily conceive this way, it may open the mother up to custody issues with the donor if legal contracts are not signed ahead of time.” She recommends “using an infertility clinic or a provider well-versed in insemination and sperm banks. They offer legal protections and clear rights to the mother, child and limitations to the donor that are legally binding from the start.”
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot to consider when conceiving solo. And that makes finding the right care team and support system even more important.
While you might be conceiving solo, you’re not alone.
We sat down with English Taylor, a San Francisco-based birth doula and Modern Fertility blog contributor, to talk about support before, during, and after birth for women who conceive without partners.
Modern Fertility: What do you do differently to support solo mamas during birth?
English: There's an expression that I love, something like, "The energy that gets the baby in gets the baby out." During the birth process — usually in early stages of labor or to induce labor — I encourage my clients to be romantic and intimate. This can get the natural hormones involved in labor flowing. For mamas birthing solo, they don't have a partner to assist them with this, so as their doula I try to create an intimate environment by always dimming the lights, playing sexy music, diffusing a certain essential oil blend, braiding their hair, giving them a massage, and making them feel as comfortable as possible with pillows.
It's extremely hard to communicate during an intense labor contraction. Women are often transported to a totally different mental place during birth, which is normal and natural. This is why having a clearly communicated plan and an advocate for the mother's wishes during birth is so important.
You can write down or type up your birth preferences beforehand. Go through them carefully with your care team at a prenatal appointment or as soon as you get into the hospital or birth center. For example, do you want an epidural? Are you trying to avoid interventions all together? Do you want delayed cord clamping? Who do you want to cut the cord? Would you like the baby to immediately be put on your chest after birth for skin-to-skin contact? Do your own research, ask your provider, and ask trusted loved ones to make an informed and intuitive decision for you and your baby.
Bring three copies of your preferences and make sure one gets posted right by your bed and on the door to the room. Give a nurse the other one — they are your advocate. So much of having an empowered birth experience is feeling like your birth was your birth — not your OB's, not your best friend's, not your doula's, and not the nurse's.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything goes according to your plan. Birth is unpredictable — I like to use the word “preferences” rather than “plan” with clients. Having an empowered birth means having a chance to ask questions, having time to make decisions when appropriate, being asked permission before procedures are performed, and being asked for your consent. Writing your preferences down and using this as a tool to advocate for yourself in the birth environment can facilitate an empowered birth experience.
MF: How can solo mamas build their community and get the support they need?
ET: If my clients are open to it, I try to connect them to other single mamas I have supported in the past. Being pregnant and having a newborn can be emotionally and physically exhausting. When you find out you're expecting, start building your "village." Maybe your village is made up of neighbors, coworkers, or an online support group. This could be as small as making friends with your landlord and asking them to bring packages up to your door, or asking your manager if they would organize a meal train for you or let you work from home one day a week as you prepare your home for a baby.
And don't be afraid to ask for help. This doesn't have anything to do with your ability to mother or care for your little one. If you do ask for help, practice doing it specifically. With pregnancy and postpartum, I've noticed that so many people want to help, but just don't know how. So, try to practice being actionable in your requests. When someone says they'd love to help, don't just say, "Thank you so much! That would be great." Instead, try, "Thank you so much. Could you stop by tomorrow afternoon to hold him for one hour while I take a nap?" I find people appreciate feeling useful and knowing exactly what to do, especially individuals who haven't had a baby.
If you feel comfortable, let your care team know you're a solo mom before, during, and after birth — this could be at a prenatal appointment, during birth, or at your postpartum check ups. If you want them to be, they can be extra supportive.
Finally, I recommend hiring a doula. Or ask a friend or family member to be your number one during pregnancy and birth. They can attend prenatal appointments with you, go to breastfeeding classes with you, and be there with you during birth — especially during birth. Having continuous labor support from someone who isn't a partner and isn't a clinician is scientifically shown to improve outcomes for both mother and baby. They can also drive you home afterwards!
MF: Thanks so much, English. Anything you want to leave us with?
ET: Giving birth can be an incredibly confidence-boosting experience. Like, holy shit! I did that. For solo moms, I think this feeling of power can actually be heightened.