Common Questions About Conception, Answered

by Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D. Health Professional

There are many myths and false ideas in the world about the process of conception in humans. The good news? We have accurate, evidence-based information to help clear up those misconceptions about how pregnancy occurs.

The basics of conception: How does a person get pregnant?

In an average fertile heterosexual couple, the process of conception, works like this: The woman will release an egg from one of her ovaries about two weeks after the first day of her menstrual cycle. The egg travels from one of the ovaries and through the fallopian tube toward the uterus.

If sperm are present, the egg usually meets the sperm in the outermost third of the fallopian tube. The male’s ejaculate (the fluid that contains the semen) will contain between 30 to 300 million sperm, which all strive to swim the distance to meet up with the egg, passing through the vagina, into the cervix, through the uterus, and into the fallopian tubes.

While sperm can live inside a woman’s body for up to 5 days, the egg is only viable for about 24 hours. This makes it critical that the sperm and the egg meet in that window in order for fertilization to occur. If a sperm is able to fertilize the egg, the fertilized egg will immediately begin the process of cell division, as it continues its journey through the fallopian tube and nestles in the lining of the uterus about a week later.

What are the chances of getting pregnant if my partner and I do not have any fertility issues?

Even if there are no fertility problems, the odds of becoming pregnant will vary from cycle to cycle. About 80 percent of couples who are trying to get pregnant will conceive in about 6 months, with the majority of those conceiving in the first 3 months. This will vary depending on a few factors, including:

  • The age of the individual partners

  • Health history (e.g. weight, chronic diseases, etc.)

  • Social history (e.g. smoking, drinking, etc.)

  • How frequently they have sex

About 9 percent of men and 11 percent of women are said to have a fertility issue that will prevent conception or make conception difficult.

If you’re 35 or younger, you should seek help from a reproductive endocrinologist or other specialist if you have been trying to get pregnant for one year with well-timed intercourse. After age 35, or before age 35 with certain medical conditions, you should only wait six months before seeking help. One of the most easily identified factors in fertility issues is the age of the people involved.

Can I get pregnant if the man doesn’t penetrate all the way or if he pulls out before ejaculation?

The answer is yes, you can. Pre-ejaculate released from the penis can include small amounts of sperm, and it takes only one resilient sperm to get you pregnant.

The withdrawal (“pull-out”) method can be a risky, unreliable form of birth control; Planned Parenthood tells us that out of every 100 women who have a partner who uses withdrawal, that 22 of those women will become pregnant. In comparison, only 2-8 out of every 100 women who use some sort of birth control pill will become pregnant.

For those who do choose to use the withdrawal method, Planned Parenthood does offer advice to make it more effective: The man should urinate between ejaculations before having sex again. This will help decrease the chances that sperm will be left in the urethra and be present in pre-ejaculate.

The bottom line: The man does not necessarily have to ejaculate to get you pregnant. There is a possibility of pregnancy whenever any semen or pre-ejaculate spills onto the vulva (the woman’s outer genital area).

Can semen travel through clothing?

This is one of those questions for which there really are no studies to provide answers, but we can deduce through logic that it is extremely unlikely. Sperm are actually very fragile. This means that clothed “dry humping” is unlikely to result in pregnancy.

Can I become pregnant if I have sex during my period?

It is possible. If you have sex toward the end of your period, the sperm will still be alive in 72 or more hours after you have had sex. Therefore, if you ovulate early enough in your cycle, it is possible that there are still some live sperm inside your body, even though it has been days since you’ve had sex.

Can I get my female partner pregnant if I get ejaculate on my hand and then touch my partner’s genitals?

This question and variations of it are common. Another common question people ask is whether dried sperm can come back to life when moistened.

The American Pregnancy Association is clear in stating that once sperm is dry, it is dead. Sperm cannot be brought back to life by being remoistened. So if the sperm has dried, it is not going to get anyone pregnant.

Sperm can live for days inside the body in the right environment. Outside of the human body, sperm have a much shorter existence.

So how long can sperm live outside the body?

How long sperm can stay alive outside of the body depends on the conditions surrounding it. Depending on conditions, sperm can live from a few minutes to about 20 minutes outside the body.

If the sperm is dry, there is no chance for pregnancy. But if you have ejaculate on your hands that is not dry or washed off completely, and you get that ejaculate anywhere near your female partner’s vagina, then perhaps there is a slight risk for pregnancy.

Your best bet is to always wash your hands thoroughly if you have any semen or pre-ejaculate fluids on them before touching your female partner’s vulva or vagina.

Bottom line

Unplanned pregnancy is a concern for many. There are numerous factors at play, so it’s common to have anxiety about different scenarios that may be running through your head. When in doubt, assume there is a pregnancy risk, and take precautions by choosing a birth control method that is right for you and your partner.

Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D.

Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., LCCE, CLC, AdvCD(DONA) is a childbirth educator, doula, founder of, and the award-winning pregnancy and parenting author of “The Complete Illustrated Guide to Pregnancy” and more than 10 other books. Between her nine children, teaching childbirth classes, and attending births for more than two decades, she has built up an impressive and practical knowledge base. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinPregnancy, Instagram @Robineliseweiss, and Facebook @childbirthtrainings.