Egg freezing: The perfect way to preserve fertility – or really expensive back-up plan?
Irish mothers are not only having fewer children than before, we are also leaving it later and later to become mothers.
In fact, the average age of first-time mums in Ireland now stands at almost 31, which makes us only second to Italy here in Europe in terms of what age we are when we start our families.
And while fertility rates among Irish women are still high (according to recent statisitcs, there are 1.77 births per woman in Ireland), there is no denying that more and more couples are leaving it later to try to a baby, with many women nowadays only entering into motherhood in their 30s and even 40s.
The problem? No matter how much we work out and how well-groomed and young we look on the outside, inside our bodies, we are still the chronological age our birth certs reveal us to be – and this goes for our eggs too.
From a biological perspective, we are at our absolute most fertile in our early 20s. From our mid-20s, our fertility starts to decline, and this process speeds up drastically from around the age of 35-38.
But many of us are nowhere near ready to start a family at 24 – both because we might not have met the person we actually want to have babies with – or, we are in no financial postion to raise children and provide for them. So what's a girl to do?
One possibility when it comes to preserving your fertility is to have your eggs frozen, an option that is definitively becoming more popular, but what does it actually involve?
Preserving fertility for the future
We recently caught up with Dr Faiza Shafi Sims from Sims IVF to chat all things egg freezing with her, and find out what it really means to have your eggs harvested and frozen down for future use.
"Egg freezing is a great fertility preservation option for women who want to have children one day, but not any time soon," Dr Shafi, who is a specialist in fertility and reproductive medicine, explains. "Fertility declines naturally with age, and more and more women are now delaying motherhood until later in life. Eggs decrease both in quantity and quality as we age, but freezing your eggs stops the clock. If you are 28 when you have your eggs frozen, these eggs will still be 28 even if you are 40 when you are ready to have a baby."
What is egg freezing?
When using egg freezing as a technology to delay motherhood experts are calling the process 'social egg freezing.' This, Dr Shafi explains, is opposed to women who have their eggs frozen prior to undergoing a treatment that could potentially result in damage to their ovaries, such as for instance radiation or chemotherapy.
‘Egg freezing technologies, or cryopreservation, was originally developed as a medical way of ensuring women undergoing cancer treatment could still have children later if they wanted," says Dr Shafi.
"Nowadays, however, there is a lot of interest from women who simply want to preserve their own fertility for later, because they simply are not ready to become mothers yet, or haven't met a partner they want to start a family with."
The procedure involves stimulating your ovaries by injections and medication to boost egg production, then have these eggs collected and frozen down in tanks of liquid nitrogen.
How does the process work?
After your consultation, you will be tested for infectious diseases before starting the egg maturing process.
"Once this is done, you will be given medications to stimulate your ovaries to produce many follicles," explains Dr Shafi. "Follicles are the small fluid filled structures which develop on the ovaries, each of which will hopefully contain an egg. The number and size of the developing follicles is measured by trans-vaginal ultrasound scans."
The final preparation for egg retrieval involves a hormone injection which mimics the natural trigger for ovulation.
"The egg retrieval takes place 36-38 hours after this injection," says Dr Shafi, who explains that this is a prcedure that is done in their clinic and only takes a few hours.
"Most women are back to work again the following day."
A solution is then added to the eggs to protect them before freezing, and then they are cooled down and kept frozen until you decide you are ready to have a baby.
When is the best time to freeze your eggs?
As we age, our eggs inside us age too. Freezing them essentiallys stops the clock, and the eggs you freeze down will remain the age they were when frozen.
"We recommend to have your eggs frozen before the age of 35," says Dr Shafi. "Simply because your chances of getting pregnant with eggs that are younger, are better. Much, much better."
When freezing your eggs, your odds of getting pregnant later obviously increases the more eggs you were able to retrieve. And this is where things can get tricky – and expensive – the older you are.
"To get as many eggs as we want, you might have to go through several cycles of egg collection the older you are, in order to get several eggs that are of good quality," explains Dr Shafi. "And so your costs will go up, as you pay per cycle of treatment and per egg collection procedure."
To illustrate, Dr Shafi explains, you have a 75 percent chance of getting pregnant with eggs that were frozen at the age of 30, but this drops to just a 25 percent chance with eggs that were frozen at 38.
What are the benefits of egg freezing?
Getting pregnant when we are older, with older eggs, come with more associated risks, such as a much higher chance of miscarriage and also chromosomal abnormalities like Down’s syndrome.
"By freezing your eggs, you essentially stop the egg ageing clock a the point at which they go into the freezer,’ says Dr Shafi. "So if you freeze your eggs at 32 and use them at 40, your risk of miscarriage and genetic abnormalities will be the same as a 32-year-old’s, as this is the age of the eggs you are using."
How much does it all cost?
‘Social egg freezing’ is a procedure you have to pay for out of your own pocket, and having this "insurance" doesn't come cheap.
At Sims, Dr Shafi explains, having your eggs prepared and collected for freezing will cost you an average of €3500.
"And then you pay a yearly fee for having your frozen eggs stored, and this is around €300 per year."
Later, should you decide to use your frozen eggs, there will be another fee for thawing the eggs and having the ivf procedure done to fertilise the egg and then transfer it back into your uterus in the hope that it will implant and result in a viable pregnancy.
"It is not a cheap option," Dr Shafi agrees. "But it is the best option we have right now for women wishing to preserve their fertility for the future, and if you freeze your eggs at the right age, your chances of having a baby is high."