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'Medical Clowning' Is a Thing and It Could Totally Get You Pregnant

Photograph by Twenty20

The idea of “medical clowning,” which sounds like a joke in itself, is nothing new. It's been around since the time of Hippocrates, when doctors understood the importance of humor to a person’s well-being. There's some evidence laughter, humor or the chemical surges we get when we observe something funny are useful tools for couples struggling with infertility.

A few years ago, some doctors put medical clowning to the test and set up a year long medical trial at a clinic in Israel to see whether funny doctors helped women get pregnant. Lead by Dr. Shevach Friedler, the researchers found that a 15-minute laugh session after an IVF embryo transfer increased odds of conception from 20.2 to 36.4 percent. Following an embryo transfer, the women in the study watched a clown dressed as "chef de cuisine" perform a routine that included jokes, tricks and magic. (Friedler apparently wrote the routine's jokes himself.)

Friedler attribute the increased rate of pregnancy to “the bedside entertainment [, which] relaxed women stressed out by years of grueling IVF treatment.”

Friedler didn't resurrect medical clowning; some doctors have made it a part of their routine care. Remember Patch Adams, made famous by Robin Williams in the movie that would bear his name? He wore a red clown nose and told jokes when treating patients to put them at ease while assessing injuries.

In 1986, Michael Christensen started the Big Apple Clown Care Unit to add some fun to an otherwise anxiety-inducing environment for children undergoing serious medical treatment.

For young kids going into surgery, anxiety was significantly lower in those visited by professional clowns, according to a study on prevention of anxiety in children published in The Pediatric Anesthesia Journal. Elderly patients, specifically those suffering from dementia and in long term care, also benefit from “clown rounds,” as do their families and the hospital staff.

But telling a woman undergoing fertility treatments to “just relax” is futile, it's not enough, it's not helpful.

So the idea that medical clowns might also help those undergoing infertility treatments should be no surprise. What is kind of surprising is that Friedler's research (and results) aren't taken very, well, seriously.

The 2011 case study, “The effect of medical clowning on pregnancy rates after in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer” got everyone excited for a while, since the results had been so promising. But the laughter died down in the years since, with no new studies to corroborate the evidence.

I'd like to make the case that we not give up on clowns just yet. I spent years trying to get pregnant, undergoing rounds and rounds of IUIs and IVF. Now, I'm the mother of three. In some part, I think it's because of what medical clowning hopes to induce: laughter.

One late summer day, when we were knee deep in IVF shots and ultrasound appointments and the ups and downs of a calendar dictated by hormones more than seasons, I found myself lying on the kitchen floor with arms splayed like a murder victim. Come trace the chalk line, I was done.

That's how my husband found me after he came home from work. Unphased, he stepped over my inert body and crouched down.

We women do all kinds of wacked out things when fighting infertility.

“Hot flash?” he asked. I very gently thumped my sweaty forehead against the floor, letting the cool kitchen tiles do their work.

Infertility is a serious business, just ask the insurance companies. If you let it, it can bleed you dry—mind, body, wallet and soul.

If there’s anything to this clowning-around theory, it’s that it takes off the pressure, releasing a bit of air from your ballooning self before you pop. It pokes you in the funny bone just enough to make you smile and laugh through the hormonal tears.

Everybody knows stress is bad. It’ll ramp up blood pressure, tire out your heart and leave your “fight-or-flight” engine light on at all times. It makes sense that stress would send your ovaries into hiding, condition the body to say, "Nope, not a good time for that."

But telling a woman undergoing fertility treatments to “just relax” is futile, it's not enough, it's not helpful.

While I was in the midst of the internal battle, stress was a foe and bedfellow. He was my sleepless-night seducer, whispering in my ear every single way it wasn’t going to work this time. When you want something that badly, the worry can feel out of your control. Which is how medical clowns might be the perfect balm—just enough goofy slapstick laughs and magic tricks to distract you from your psyche.

When I did finally end up pregnant with my oldest, it was a medical marvel. But it was also a personal marvel, one helped by my own doctor, who had the humor of a clown without the actual clown status. When I went back two years later for Round 2, that same doctor walked into the transfer wearing a tie-dyed head scarf, cranked up the Paul Simon and gently plopped two embryos into my uterus. Then we went home and laughed our way through the first season of "The Office."

Pregnant with twins.

Humor alone might not get you pregnant, but at the very least it can help ease the angst of fertility treatments ...

I’m not saying that was the magic trick, the waving of the wand that sealed the deal. But it didn’t hurt.

We women do all kinds of wacked out things when fighting infertility. We gnaw on pineapple cores like tropical rodents. We down pomegranate juice and pop fertility-complex vitamins. We lay on tables for acupuncture and light incense and fall into lotus-poses. We abstain from alcohol and coffee and sanity. We give up little pieces of ourselves in the hopes that it will be repaid to us in full with a little progeny. If we can do all this, surely a little laughter in the great game can’t hurt? In some cases, it might even help.

Humor alone might not get you pregnant, but at the very least it can help ease the angst of fertility treatments, which is a win no matter what. So, if you’re still fighting the good fight, if those little swimmers are still out to sea, stream some ugly cat on YouTube, put Conan O’Brien on mute just to watch his facial expressions, and yes, let the clowns come calling. It can't hurt.

And with Barnum & Bailey now officially out of business, this might be the last chance you get to take your kid to the circus.

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