Reassuringly IVF babies are healthy as infants and as young adults
The first IVF baby born (ever) has just turned 40. IVF is a technology that was such an amazing leap forward, such a game changer for couples with infertility, that it was adopted to mainstream practice remarkably quickly after being developed in the late 1970’s.
So far babies, children and adults conceived through IVF are as healthy as their same age peers conceived naturally. We still don’t know how babies born from IVF will fair in old age – they just haven’t got there yet!
Congenital abnormalities: slightly higher in IVF
There are some statistics that differ from naturally conceived pregnancies for couples needing IVF. For example, there is a higher risk of a baby conceived through IVF being born with a congenital abnormality (3-4% versus 1-2%), although the overall risk of that happening remains very low.
This links together every single minor and major issue noted at birth and overall, no real patterns have emerged. Studies noting this finding were observational (looked at statistics retrospectively) and haven’t managed to pin point why this is. The overwhelming majority of IVF babies are completely normal. It is not certain that this finding is because of IVF, but might be more related to the kinds of couples needing IVF, to their underlying medical reasons for infertility.
There is always a baseline rate of congenital abnormalities occurring in all populations who conceive naturally too (1-2%) – this can never be completely avoided.
Interestingly, it has been observed that when couples have a lot of trouble getting pregnant but eventually get there naturally, there is also a higher risk of having a baby with a congenital abnormality (3%).
We do know that men with severe infertility needing IVF and ICSI (sperm intracytoplasmic microinjection) to conceive may be more likely to pass this form of infertility down to their sons.
We also know that some ultra rare epigenetic conditions occur relatively more commonly in ICSI, known as imprinting disorders. The chance of having a baby with this problem overall is extremely rare, regardless of how they were conceived.
Advanced parental age is more common in IVF parents and is in itself associated with a higher risk of certain conditions like having a baby with Downs syndrome and other conditions associated with chromosomal imbalance (aneuploidy). IVF and pre-implantation genetic screening are often used to reduce the chance of this happening by testing embryos to ensure they are genetically healthy and normal prior to returning them to the mother’s womb.
Can IVF cause illnesses?
Going through IVF can be emotionally and physically challenging. Even when the reason for IVF is a male factor, the burden of treatment is mostly on the woman.
In my practice, this is a particular focus, trying to do everything I can to improve women’s experience of IVF. I do this by carefully selecting effective medication combinations and doses that minimise injections and side effects. By creating a supportive collaborative team of professionals who together help my patients to navigate the IVF process with comfort and confidence.
Emotional stress and depression
Infertility can be a trigger for anxiety and depression. IVF is an amazing technology but it is not a silver bullet. Many women will succeed eventually after several unsuccessful attempts. These bring highs can come at the expense of suffering real lows like pregnancy loss and miscarriage. Both men and women trying to conceive are often surrounded by friends and relatives having babies. This can be emotionally challenging and experiencing mixed feelings about the happiness of others is completely normal. Unlike other life stressors, when trying to conceive women feel they often can’t turn to their normal support networks of family, friends and colleagues, making their grief, anxiety and depression a burden that can’t be halved by sharing. To avoid depression, it’s important to recognise the early signs an to act on them. Non-judgemental, independent support is available and free for women and their partners having IVF with our care.
By careful individualisation of care, in our practice ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is extremely rare. Severe OHSS can nearly always be completely avoided with clever medicine and patience. By patience, I mean I sometimes recommend a freeze-all cycle, putting all IVF embryos into vitrification with a plan for transfer the next month. This is known as cycle segregation, and in combination with low-risk drug therapy, is a great way to completely avoid OHSS.
Long term cancer risk
Happily, early reports that IVF might be associated with increased risk of ovarian cancer are being refuted in more modern studies. We haven’t been doing IVF for all that long and it still remains critical that we follow up the long term health of women who have had IVF. So far so good.