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Rare Concept(ion)

08 September 2010

Falling in love and starting a family, it’s as natural as the birds and the bees. But as a good doctor and some of his patients attest, some times patience, planning and a little effort are needed. - by Yong Shu Chiang

Birds do it, bees do it... So goes the line from a famous Cole Porter love song. When it comes to the birds and the bees, it seems Singaporeans are having a harder time than expected.

Starting a family is no longer as common as it was. There were just 39,570 live births in 2009, and Singapore’s total fertility rate of 1.22 – the number of babies expected from a woman’s child-bearing years – ranks among the lowest in the world.

Are hardworking Singaporeans just too busy, or tired and stressed-out, to make babies?

To a certain extent, that’s true, says Dr Peter Chew, a senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist.

“Nowadays, because of globalisation, many people travel for work,” he says.

“And Singaporeans’ work lives are terrible, they are so tired – how to be intimate?”

When intimacy comes at a premium, it has a clear knock-on effect: the less couples are intimate, the less often they have intercourse, the less likely they would conceive children.

According to the Durex Sexual Wellbeing Online Survey 07/08, just 62% of Singaporeans have sex weekly.

A lack of intimacy, both emotionally and physically, is also problematic for another reason, says Dr Chew. It means couples may be less open to discussing family planning, talking about their sexual relationship, and becoming aware of the issues that face couples trying to conceive.

Couple Time

According to a recent report by the International Labor Organization, and numbers from the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore workers work about 46 hours weekly.

With such long working hours, it stands to reason that couples tend to have less private time to themselves.

The solution? According to Dr Chew, who is also the chairman of aLife, a non-profit Voluntary Welfare Organisation that promotes family life through reproductive health, couples need to make time for themselves, especially when both parties in the relationship are working.

On weekends, for instance, couples can block time off to be together.

Dr Chew also advises couples to be innovative in “optimising” their time together. If a couple is trying to conceive, and they are too exhausted after work, he suggests considering morning intimacy, after a good night’s rest.

Being relaxed and maintaining the desirability of intercourse is also important; if it starts to become a chore, couples would be less likely to engage in it. According to the Durex survey, only 35% of Singapore respondents said they were satisfied with their sex life.

“Some couples just go through the motions,” says Dr Chew. It’s important to avoid this, find conducive moments for sex, communicate during intimacy, and make it an enjoyable experience for both parties – on an emotional level as well.

Plan Ahead, Be Aware

Undeniably, more Singaporeans are staying single, as indicated in the Singapore Department of Statistics’ Population in Brief 2010. Those who do marry tend to do so later in life.

Between 1999 and 2009, the median age of citizens at first marriage increased by one and a half years from 28.4 to 29.9 years for males, and from 25.9 to 27.4 years for females.

Later marriage, and putting off starting a family for career, financial or personal reasons, makes conception harder for couples who start to depart from their years of prime fertility.

Things don’t always go to plan when couples finally decide to start trying for a baby, says Dr Chew, who sees one or two couples each month for conception issues. Apart from couples being unaware of the frequency of intercourse recommended – two to three times a week – he adds that medical factors could come into play.

Ms Magdalene Ho, 35, says she and her husband waited five years after marriage to start a family. “We thought things would just happen once we tried. Then we realised it was not so easy.”

After a fruitless year, Ms Ho consulted Dr Chew, then realised she needed surgery for endometriosis. Meanwhile, her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Fortunately, with the health of the couple on the mend, they managed to conceive in early 2010.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but I would advise that couples monitor their bodies, start planning early, and adopt a positive attitude.”

Another patient of Dr Chew, Lynn (not her real name), also learned of medical issues afflicting her and her husband after six unsuccessful months of trying.

“I thought ‘Why me, why not other people?’” she says. Lynn and her husband, both in their early 30s, had waited more than two years after marriage to start a family.

Now with child, Lynn advises couples: plan early, consult a doctor, be aware of family planning and your own health. “If you want to have a child, you may not be able to have one right away.”

The birds and the bees aren’t as easy as ABC after all – at least not for everyone.

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Challenge asks singaporeans how they ensure quality couple time.
1. Even a short chat during lunch break over the phone would be good, something I am still doing after 20 years of marriage. - Pauline Tay, 47, senior executive

2. Planning together at the start of the week to decide on a day to spend time alone helps to lessen the frustrations in our marriage. - Wang Shu Zhen, 27, manager

3. As my wife is doing shift work, I would fix my rest days to coincide with hers to enjoy our off days together.
- Kelvin Ji, 27, IT specialist

4. I believe in quality couple time but haven’t had the luxury to enjoy it as the demands from three young kids are enough to overwhelm and exhaust me. - Elaine Khong, 30, consultant

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