Evidence-based conscious conception framework
Both our phones sing in cacophonous unison with an unrelenting reminder. Now is our time to begin. My wife lights a candle and some palo santo, I prepare my journal and pen to take notes, and we take a deep breath together. The topics are tender, and we approach each other tenderly.
I often, from many different people from many walks of life, hear some iteration of the phrase, "You are never ready for kids. Brace yourself and jump in."
I couldn't agree less. After ~3 years of preparing myself, and ~6 months of diligent conversations with my wife, I feel a deep sense of peace and readiness to start the journey of parenthood.
Certainly, there is a lot of unknown and wide-ranging potential with conception, pregnancy, and parenting. There is also a tremendous field of knowledge and shared experience available to those who seek it.
I like to think of parenthood as an epic marathon run through stunning (and sometimes quite difficult) landscapes. One of my dearest friends added that it's a marathon with a secret and ever-changing course. Along the way, I may not know the exact obstacles, challenges, or beauty that I'll encounter, but I do know that I can consider, train, and prepare for the most common scenarios. And feeling strong for the known knowns and known unknowns will give me resilience and reserves for the unknown unknowns.
Google conscious conception, and you'll be awash in new age-y belief systems targeted at women. Concepts framed as "psychic birth control," "high vibration lineage healing", and "manifestation meditations" are off-putting and dissonant to a rational, systematic approach to conscious conception untethered from pseudo-spiritual dogma. And nothing I read mentioned the man's role beyond imploring women to "have conversations with your partner".
The word conscious comes from Latin roots translating to "to thoroughly know or be aware." Conception also comes from Latin with roots that mean "to take in and hold". My definition of conscious conception is being thoroughly aware of what we take in, what we hold, and what we release to be more loving, kind, and prepared parents.
Of course, diligent preparation will be good for the parents. But the most important consideration is creating an environment where the child can Thrive, as early and as fully as possible. Conscious conception is the ultimate act of parental selflessness.
This is the framework I created for my family's conscious conception and my own training for the ultra-marathon of parenthood.
Humorously serious disclaimer: I am not a doctor, lawyer, marriage counselor, or rabbi / priest / minister / monk. Nothing I share here should be construed as advice for you, unless you're into that kind of thing. I am only sharing what I learned in my own inquiry in case it is helpful to you. If you seek a more definitive authority, everything you read on the internet is probably true. Or you could go to a licensed professional in whatever tradition resonates with you. Just don't abdicate your own research or sense-making to any perceived authority, myself included.
Six dimensions of conscious conception
I have observed that the parents and families most at peace and in flow are well developed along six dimensions (in no particular order):
- Physical - diet, sleep, endurance, and physical strength
- Emotional - resilience and healthy regulation with emotional highs and lows
- Intellectual - acquiring the knowledge to best tend to each developmental stage of life
- Financial - having enough resources (whatever that means to each individual) to feel unstressed
- Relational - the richness of partner connection and how gracefully they traverse conflict and disagreement
- Spiritual - feeling connection and purpose to something larger than oneself
The data-driven part of my awareness suggests ranking oneself on a 1-10 scale along each of these dimensions. Everyone will have their own strengths and weaknesses, so there is no judgment on the starting point. Even considering where one may be more or less developed should be celebrated because not everyone has the inner resolve for tender and vulnerable self-reflection.
The most important thing is each partner's commitment to diligently addressing and growing where they feel least capable. Personally, I was not willing to begin trying until a minimum threshold of 7 in each category, and I am aiming for a 9 before our first child is born.
To each dimension in greater depth.
Physical - Preparing the body
Traditional conception is a physical act that involves two bodies. For the woman, prime conditions are realized in regular hormone expression, receptive uterine lining, and a rich garden of nutrients for the zygote-turned embryo to grow. For the man, prime conditions are realized in sperm that are plentiful (quantity), strong swimmers (motility), and shaped correctly (morphology). Another emerging area of research is the viability of the DNA within the sperm.
Beyond the moment of conception, pregnancy and parenthood are physically demanding tasks. For the woman, feeding a new life from within and carrying all that extra weight is incredibly taxing. For both parents, the early years of parenthood have little sleep and much fatigue. Even in the best-case scenario, pregnancy and parenthood are physically grueling, and it only gets more complex from there.
To set both parents, and especially the child, up for success, there are four key (interwoven) considerations:
Diet & nutrition
I define diet as anything we consume or put in our bodies. That includes food and drink, certainly, and also includes anything we smoke, any supplements we ingest, and any drugs we take (pharmaceutical or otherwise). This also includes compounds we ingest unknowingly, such as BPA and microplastics from water bottles, synthesized compounds from cleaning products, and fumes from off-gassing materials (like new carpets). From a purely rational and scientific standpoint, considering everything our body is processing can be quite illuminating. For those so inclined, expanding our "diet" to include media, conversations, and energies that we partake in can also be productive.
Much is written and documented about preparing the woman's body vis a vis diet and prenatal supplements. This matters A LOT for the woman's part in fertility, and most doctors will bring this up.
Much less is written and researched about preparing the man's body. To my knowledge, the Doveras team has the most comprehensive synthesis of scientific awareness on diet and nutrition on sperm health. I've reviewed their write-ups for improving sperm health, and although I don't agree with every conclusion, they cite their academic sources and have experts on staff to have a conversation as needed.
At the highest and most basic level, it's what many call "eating healthy". Reduce (and ideally eliminate) processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and sugary foods. No smoking (tobacco, cannabis, or non-psychoactive "smoking blends") and no alcohol. Pharmaceutical drugs are nuanced and should be discussed with your doctor. Non-pharmaceutical drugs are also nuanced and very poorly studied, though generally stimulants (like cocaine) and amphetamines (like MDMA) are more harmful than classical psychedelics (like psilocybin or LSD). Caffeine depends on the quantity and method of consumption Sodas and energy drinks in high quantities have negative effects, where tea and coffee are more of a mixed bag (and usually not statistically significant) impact. Stick to <300mg of caffeine from unsweetened coffee or tea, and you should be OK.
At a deeper level, removing plastics, toxins, and other synthetic fumes (cleaners, new carpets, new yoga mats, anything stinky when it's new) is certainly a good idea. There is a growing body of literature that suggests these manufacturing byproducts may dysregulate hormone expression.
For those that care to deep dive and become obsessive (🙋🏻♂️), there are a lot of micro-optimizations to be done. The vast majority of the gains, however, are probably at the most basic level. Eat mostly fresh plants and fish, use plant-based cleaners, no smoking, no alcohol, less sugar, and no (non-psychedelic) drugs.
Don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Some things are much more impactful (e.g. smoking) than others (e.g. caffeine). Do the best you can, be gentle and gracious with yourself, and know where you can continue to improve as time and energy allow.
I have explored and written extensively about sleep in the past, in part because I have a complex relationship with sleep.
Overall, I believe it's fair to conclude that having enough quality and quantity of sleep is important for healthy hormone expression (and emotional regulation). This cascades through a wide array of expected and unexpected contexts like hunger, exercise, learning, memory, and more. Also, one can reasonably expect to have their sleep patterns significantly disrupted later in pregnancy and for the first few years of childhood, so get it while you can!
Prioritize sleep hygiene (NIH's 12 sleep best practices (here, page 20)). As much as possible, try not to have bright screen time (e.g. computer, phone, or TV) an hour before bed.
Having sufficient quality and quantity of sleep will create the conditions for your body (and your mind) to be fully prepared.
Every parent I've asked has shared they had episodes of feeling the edge of their capacity for fatigue and exhaustion. For anyone unpracticed in exploring their physical limits, it may be a good idea to practice now when someone else's life (and your relationship) doesn't depend on it.
This can happen in any array of movement or exercise traditions. The most common "endurance sports" are running, swimming, and cycling. If any of those inspire you, go for it! Train for a half (or full!) marathon. Work your way up to swimming a mile. Get pumped and cycle a century.
Or don't! The vast majority of parents are not Iron Women or Men. There are plenty of ways to explore your physical limits.
Start or deepen a yoga practice. Dance your booty off at ecstatic dance or daybreaker events. Attend exercise classes at your favorite YMCA, gym, or workout spot. If resources afford, hire a personal trainer to customize workouts to your body and preferences. And if resources are scarce, work out with Maddy of Mad Fit or any other of the multitude of free online high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
Or get outside. Go for hikes. Ski or snowboard. Rock climb. Play beach volleyball, tennis, soccer, or any other sport. Go for long walks in your city or neighborhood until your body is sore.
The point isn't any one activity or trophy. The point is to push your body to feel exhaustion, wherever that may be for you, so that you become comfortable with that sensation in your body and your mind. The more frequently you explore that frontier, the further you can push it and the more resilient you'll become.
Caring for, and carrying, a child can require big pushes and heavy lifting. The more we prepare our muscles ahead of time, the more present and in the flow we can be when that strength is required of us.
In the words of one of my b-school classmates, "We don't rise to the occasion. We fall to our training."
For women, pelvic floor damage during birth is very common, especially with vaginal births. It's also preventable and treatable with targeted exercises that strengthen those muscles. It's not just preventing injury - a more fit woman is likely to need less induction and birth a healthier child.
For men, especially those that want to proactively bond with their child, there will be a lot of time carrying the child around. Also, in the earlier developmental years, men are most often responsible for physical play and roughhousing. The longer one can sustain that carrying and physical play, the greater the potential for a rich connection to form.
As with each of these dimensions, it's easy to reach for extremes. You do not need to become a bodybuilder or powerlifter. If this is a dimension where you find value to develop, reach for being 30% stronger in your upper body, core, and lower body than you are today. Which regions you need to focus on will depend entirely on your profession, your other movement practices, and where you feel inspired to develop.
Emotion - Preparing resilience and regulation
Similar to preparing our physical bodies, we also need to prepare our emotional bodies. It's often said that parenthood has really high highs and really low lows.
Sadness and grief
In the "fourth trimester," the 3 or so months immediately after birth, many women experience profound sadness (and even sometimes depression). Less often seen or acknowledged is that men also go through a profound grief process as they have to release a past way of life, and likely many personal aspirations and hobbies, that are no longer accessible. In this stage, having the capacity to sit with sadness and grief, both one's own and that of one's partner, is acutely valuable.
As the child grows and matures, there will be many more moments of sadness and grief. Sometimes the trigger is something that happens to, with, or around your child. Sometimes the trigger is something your child has (or has not) become. Oftentimes, the sadness is triggered by a child individuating and ultimately moving out.
Whatever the cause, it is almost certainly the case that you and your partner will feel deep pangs of sadness and/or grief throughout the journey of parenthood. Investing in the tools to process those emotions now will pay many dividends in the future.
Self- and co-regulating
In the first few years, when the baby and toddler are wholly dependent, I often see parents riding a rollercoaster of emotions triggered by doctor's visits, illnesses, developmental milestones, and seemingly incessant crying. In this stage, the ability to self-soothe and co-regulate, especially when feeling under-resourced in other departments (parallel to the concept of physical endurance is that of emotional endurance), can prove useful.
As the child develops and begins testing boundaries, there will be many times when their words or actions are the direct triggers that needs to be emotionally modulated. No one is perfect, and every parent I've ever met has acknowledged that they've made mistakes along the way. Be gracious with yourself, and be honest with your child. Part of modeling healthy emotional intelligence and self-regulation is noticing when you've crossed a line, apologizing, and sharing your inner landscape. Proactively practice gracefully navigating acute triggers and undercurrents of tension now, and you will experience many benefits internally and externally.
Patience & unconditional love
From an early age, and with increasing skill and tenacity, children are testing boundaries. Even as they seek edges, to form a healthy secure attachment, children need to feel safe and loved consistently. That requires an extraordinary capacity for inner resolve and patience.
At puberty, the game changes radically in unforeseeable hormonal waves. Here, more than ever, parents must practice patience, unconditional love, and supreme care. Practice all the skills of healthy emotional expression and processing, and your child will learn best practices by your lived example.
Generational trauma & epigenetics
The field of epigenetics is giving scientific weight to the concept of generational trauma. In short, the same strand of DNA may express itself differently based on environment, behaviors, and physical health.
If there are behaviors or habituated patterns you inherited but no longer serve you (or your children), now is a great time to work on letting them go. Improving the expression of your own, and your children's, DNA may be the greatest gift you ever bestow within your lineage.
Different stages of a child's development, and frankly even different days within those stages, require different tools in your emotional superhero belt. Ask around your peers, and especially those parents that you admire and respect as parents (note: that can be quite different from who you admire and respect as personal friends or as professionals!) and start collecting and practicing those tools.
It will absolutely benefit your child in clear, demonstrable, evidence-based ways. I offer that these emotional tools and skills are likely to improve many other aspects of your life, relationships, professional, and creative pursuits as well.
Intellectual - Know what to expect, and what to do about it
There are a handful of tiers of knowledge that I consider useful.
NOTE: I DO NOT mean deep diving the near infinite list of potential complications. That usually causes way more stress than value. Spend most of your time learning about what is expected and how to react if something feels off.
Everything up to the moment of a sperm entering an egg. This includes fertility cycle planning and conscious conception topics noted here.
Fun conception fact: spermogensis (the creation of sperm) takes around 74 days. So the sperm ejaculated today really got started 2.5 months ago.
2) Pregnancy and birth
From conception to the moment of birth. Most of the changes here are in the woman's body, and there are beautiful changes happening to the zygote, embryo, and fetus. Know what doctor's visits are important, tests that are (and are not) valuable, and what to expect throughout the birthing process. Midwives and doulas can be extremely helpful for this stage.
Fun pregnancy fact: From weeks 8-12, an embryo doubles in weight every week. If it continued to grow at that rate until full term, it would weigh about as much as a fully loaded 747 aircraft (!!).
3) Physical development
After the child is born, knowing what to expect for normal ranges is common place in the medical establishment. Beyond typical height and weight, knowing what other physical milestones exist can create a lot of peace and ease for parents.
Fun physical fact: typical babies learn to walk somewhere between 9 and 18 months. That's a huge (and totally expected) window!!
4) Cognitive development
In addition to physical development, it's important to pay attention to cognitive developmental milestones. The Wonder Weeks (book or app) or some equivalent can be helpful to know when expected developmental leaps are happening.
This can also extend to how you plan to educate your child. Have those conversations up front to avoid any unexpected conflict later.
Fun baby brain fact: In the first few weeks of life, a baby's sensory organs are not fully developed and their brain patterns resemble that of an adult going through an intense psychedelic experience.
5) Emotional development
Related to cognitive development, there are periods in a child's trajectory when they start understanding more abstract concepts like justice, ethics, feelings, and the emotions of others. Understanding where they on that developmental arch can create more empathy and more appropriate responses to their behaviors or experiences.
Fun emoting fact: around 6-9 months, babies begin to appropriate responses to body language and emotions in others.
6) Spiritual development
Spirituality and faith is more nuanced and specific to the family's belief system. Still, understanding when and how to support your child in appreciating their connection to something larger than themselves is valuable and important.
This can also extend to how you plan to educate your child in your chosen faith tradition. Also, how much you are going to enforce your chosen faith onto your child vs. allowing them to choose for themselves. Have those conversations up front to avoid any unexpected conflict later.
Deeply understanding what's expected, and what you expect, in each of these developmental arenas will empower any parent to feel more prepared and calmer along the journey.
Note: I did not mention any parenting books. Every decade has its cohort of parenting experts, most of whom are discredited or disavowed by the next cohort. There is certainly value to reading and learning about parenting philosophies - my only recommendation is to approach each "expert" with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Financial - Having enough to not stress
Finances are the number one or two reason for divorce (depending on the study). And almost 3/4 of Americans mark money as the number one stress in their life.
And raising a child is expensive! This really cool calculator from Brookings Institute research helps you gauge and plan for the cost (~$310,000 on average, or $17,000 per year). And that's before adding on nannies, tutors, or private schools.
Financial planning is an integral, and often underappreciated, aspect of family planning. Here are some simple best practices:
- Know the number of what enough looks like for your family
- Spend less than you make and save the rest (more savings is better)
- Have a monthly budget, log your expenses (tiller or Mint are good, and there are many others), and know when + where you're over
- A good rule of thumb for budgeting is 50-20-30 - 50% on needs (rent, food, bills, living expenses), 20% on wants (entertainment, travel, discretionary), 30% on savings (accelerating debt payoffs and/or saving up for the future)
- Use tax-advantaged accounts for personal retirement and kid's college savings
- Understand, and utilize, the incredible power of compound interest
- For those with resources to invest, start simple with exchange-traded funds (I like the socially responsible ETFs on Wealthfront)
Perhaps the most important thing is to be clear and aligned with your partner on your family's financial reality. If your "enough number" is more than your family income, something has to give. Will you rev up to earn more money? Or pull back to decrease your spend? Or both?
Feeling like you don't have enough resources to properly care for your child can be incredibly stressful. That stress is maladaptive for a pleasant parental experience as well as the healthy development of your child. Not to mention modeling great money skills for your child so they grow up with those skills themselves.
Relational - Nurturing your partner connection
Having a baby is often hard on marriages. Physical, emotional, and financial stressors can push one or both partners to the brink. And that's before you disagree or have a difference of opinion on something both of you feel strongly about.
Conversely, parents who have a strong and caring relationship are, in turn, more resourced to be loving, caring, and attentive.
This can take a number of different forms. Generally, I like Gottman's research and appreciate his seven principles of what make a marriage work:
- Enhance love maps (deeply seeing and being seen)
- Nurture fondness and admiration
- Turn toward, not away
- Let your partner influence you
- Solve solvable problems (and accept unsolvable ones)
- Overcome gridlock
- Create shared meaning
For my own relationship, I focused on building trust, sharing joyous experiences, voicing concerns and fears, and honing our conflict resolution. Proactively nurturing a foundation of trust, connection, understanding, and compassion has been rich and potent in our parental trajectory.
One of the only certainties of parenthood is that it will test the strength of your relationship. Develop a rock-solid foundation while you still have time and energy for that now.
Spiritual - Connection and purpose to something greater
A number of studies show that a sensation of something larger than oneself is positively correlated with longevity, meaning, and purpose in life. Cultivating that early on can be helpful in extreme and day-to-day moments of being a parent.
For many, this itch is scratched by a sense of God(s) from their organized religion or faith tradition. For others, this sense is stimulated by the natural world, shared humanity, spirit, source, consciousness, or Life.
There are many paths to the rich inner landscape of spirituality, and no one respectful path is better than another.
For those who feel they may want more from their spiritual or faith practices, before stepping into trying a great time to explore more deeply.
Then a ritual rite of passage
It takes weeks, months, or even years to feel fully prepared for trying to conceive (for me, it took ~3 years of staggered effort and 6 months of dedicated focus with my wife). As you approach that threshold, I suggest that there is a lot of personal and communal value in going through a rite of passage to mark your beginning.
For us, we called our rite of passage weekend celebration our Baby Portal (so we could cast a spell of pure magic to welcome our child). Others will find other framings or structures more resonant.
Greater depth and specificity on this topic in my Baby Portal write-up.
This framework is why I firmly disagree with the sentiment, "You'll never feel ready." Any couple that practices evidence-based conscious conception and genuinely prioritizes preparing themselves physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially, relationally, and spiritually is very likely to feel a deep sense of peace and calm coming into their experience of parenthood.
My personal journey (for reference)
I have definitely had a steady stream of effort over the last 3 years. In each dimension and sub-dimension:
Physical - working on getting into, then back into, decent shape
- Diet & nutrition - eating healthier than ever, taking Athletic greens supplement, and limiting toxic compounds and influences
- Sleep - much better at sleeping 6-8 hrs / night most nights of the week
- Endurance - briefly trained for a marathon. Often push my body, and my mind, to the edge. Generally feel good on endurance
- Strength - mostly fine, though this is one area I'm still focusing on developing
- In addition to all these, I’m currently working on resolving some injuries so that they don’t hold me back with my children
Emotional - processing and releasing
I feel like I can sense emotions in myself relatively quickly. Once I notice a deviation from my typical thought patterns in my awareness, I am generally pretty good at regulating in the short-term and processing in the long-term. I also feel good being still with sadness and honoring grief. A lot of my efforts are on choosing what gifts I carry forward and what I release from my ancestral lineage.
One place I have to improve is offering patience (while still expressing my unconditional love).
Intellectual - learning a lot
Reading, thinking, and writing are my jam. This one certainly comes naturally to me.
Financial - aligning on goals and expectations
Can be a painful, though very important and useful, exercise. Even with my undergrad in economics from Yale and my Masters in Management Science (very similar to MBA) degree from Stanford's Graduate School of Business, I keep our budget and personal finances super simple.
Relational - connecting & clarifying with my wife
In addition to cultivating our connection, I made a list of 8 topics that I felt were critically important to address before we started trying for child. Every week or two, we carved out 3 hours to systematically work through these topics. They were tender, vulnerable, and very raw. And very important.
Spiritual - Exploring my connection regularly
My progress was non-linear, but hugely meaningful in my trajectory. As of October 2023, I felt I reached the minimum threshold where I was comfortable to start trying to conceive with my wife.