What to Say & What Not to Say to the Infertile Patient

By: Dr. Craig R. Sweet, Medical Director & Founder

(Reprinted from Florida Parenting News, February, 1994, revised September, 1999 and again April, 2011.)


Infertility affects nearly one in six couples. Approximately 40% of the time, the problem is related to the female partner, another 40% is related to male difficulties and 20% of the time both partners will have medical problems. Most of the time, infertility is a symptom of an underlying disease process, a disease process that the infertile patient has no control over. To these patients, infertility can be a crisis of the deepest kind. Every menstrual cycle represents a failure and is a time of grief for the potential child that never came to be.

The infertile patient or couple will often express their feelings through anger, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, depression and guilt. Relationships with family members who have children can suffer, marriages and relationships are strained and well-meaning friends and family can overload the patient with advice and pressure. Family and social gatherings become a reminder of infertility. Baby showers can be a traumatic experience. Mother's and Father's Day are often very, very difficult.

We want to offer some tips that provide support to patients who have not yet had the blessing of a beautiful child to love. With your assistance, most patients going though the process of trying to conceive can maintain a positive attitude.

What Not To Say…

Don't ask a childless person when they are going to have a child. They may be going through the process of trying to conceive, but have not yet achieved success. Asking them only reminds them of their problem and they need no extra reminders.

Don't relate stories of your fertility to them. Hearing “my husband just has to look at me and I get pregnant” is very annoying. While well meaning, the statement is insensitive and unhelpful.

Don't give advice such as “just relax,” “you are trying too hard” or “take a vacation.” All of these very common comments imply that patient has control of their fertility. Most of the time, these patients have absolutely no control over their fertility. Implying control leads to feelings of failure and guilt when this advice doesn't work. It simply is not their fault and they are doubtfully doing anything wrong in what they have done thus far.

Don't offer advice such as sexual timing, position, herbal medications or other totally unproven therapies. There are literally hundreds of old wives’ tales that, when followed, can drive an infertile patient nearly crazy. Their physician will have covered those natural aspects of their care that may maximize their chances for conception. Once again, please to not imply that they have a sense of control as they lost it long ago.

Don't express your derogatory personal opinions regarding insemination procedures, test-tube babies or adoption. Sometimes, these are their only hope for having a child. These are your opinions and uninvited advice is rarely neither desired nor constructive. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion; simply keep it your own. If they ask for your advice, then feel free to state your opinions, but do so in a kind and considerate manner.  Please, do not be judgmental.

Don't place blame by accusing the couple of exercising too much, eating the wrong foods or drinking alcohol. These patients may already be blaming themselves. Their physician will have already covered the medical and reproductive consequences of obesity, smoking, alcohol and recreation drugs. Support them in the cessation of these activities and minimize the guilt associated with their consumption. The guilt rarely leads to cessation but often moves the individual to increased consumption.

What You Can Say and Do…

Do provide couples with plenty of emotional support by saying “It must be difficult to go through this” and “I'm here to listen if you need to talk.”

Do remember that men can be just as emotional about the problem, sometimes even more so. They may feel their masculinity is at risk. Be sensitive to their egos and personality traits.

Do understand the couple's need for privacy.

Do try to understand that if they are your employees, frequent doctor's appointments may be necessary during business hours. Please try to accommodate them as much as possible. Not doing so may also be construed as a form of discrimination and place you at legal risk.

Do understand why they may not make it to a baby shower or a holiday event. These frequent events can become overwhelming for an infertile patient.

Do tell the infertile couple that there is hope.

Please remember that the vast majority of infertile patients have minimal control of the diseases that causes their infertility. Giving them emotional support during this trying time is a wonderful way to assist them. Giving them subtle hints that they have control plants the seeds of personal failure in the minds of the infertile patient.

Please be kind, be thoughtful and always be supportive.


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