You think you want to have a baby -- someday. What can you do today to make sure your eggs are ready when you are?
One option is to have your eggs harvested and fertilized -- just as women who get in vitro fertilization (IVF) do -- but instead of having them implanted, resulting embryos are frozen and stored. Your biological clock ticks in your ovaries, not your uterus, so whether you have those embryos implanted at 35 or 40 or 45, they'll still be embryos created from "younger" eggs -- and more likely to be healthy.
But what if you don't want to use a sperm donor or a casual boyfriend to help create embryos that may someday become your children? Can you just freeze your eggs and have them fertilized later?
Until recently, that was a risky proposition. The egg -- the largest cell in the human body -- contains a significant amount of water. Think about what often happens when you freeze water into ice cubes and then start to thaw it. The ice can crack.
"The egg contains everything necessary for early embryonic development, but any kind of break within its structures can damage it," says Teresa K. Woodruff, PhD. She's the chief of the Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology-Fertility Preservation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. For years, health experts considered egg freezing experimental, with success rates below those for either embryo freezing or using fresh "donor" eggs.
But thanks in large part to a new technology called vitrification, egg freezing is ready for prime time. "Vitrification takes all the water-like substances in the egg and transitions them without the cracking that can occur during freezing or thawing," Woodruff says.
As of fall 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine took the "experimental" label off the technology. There have now been more than 2,000 live births from frozen eggs, about 1,000 within the past 5 years.
Age still matters. Your ultimate odds of a successful pregnancy are greater if you're younger when you freeze your eggs. If you do it when you're 30, there's about a 13.2% chance of getting pregnant in a given cycle, compared with just 8.6% with eggs frozen at 40.
"This is a great step forward," Woodruff says. "Being able to bank eggs provides real autonomy for women."
How does it work? Egg freezing is similar to in vitro fertilization: Fertility drugs are used to stimulate your ovaries to make multiple mature eggs in one cycle. Doctors then harvest your eggs in an ultrasound-guided procedure under light anesthesia. But instead of being fertilized and implanted, the eggs are frozen -- and can stay that way for 10 years or more.
What does it cost? In general, a cycle costs about $10,000. Storage of the eggs runs around $500 a year, and an egg thaw cycle is about $5,000. IVF is then needed to fertilize the egg and implant the embryo --that can also cost around $10,000.
Does insurance cover the process? Not usually, although it may cover part of the cost of some medications. You'll have to pay the fertility center and request any reimbursement from your insurance carrier.
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