Jeremy Laurance: A parent's dream – and nightmare

For a whole football team (almost), an army of helpers will be required
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The parents of America's largest instant family should be celebrating with their doctors and giving thanks today. Though there are many risks ahead, they have already beaten extraordinary odds to deliver eight live babies, all apparently well and breathing unaided.

Although no details of the mother's treatment have been disclosed, on one matter doctors are agreed: octuplets do not occur naturally. The likeliest explanation is that the mother was having ovulation induction – treatment to stimulate her ovaries to produce eggs.

Failure to ovulate is a common cause of infertility and a symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome. Treatment is with drugs to stimulate the ovaries, which are normally monitored using ultrasound. If more than two egg follicles are seen to be developing, doctors recommend abandoning the treatment and advise the couple to desist from intercourse.

Patients, however, have other ideas. Mandy Allwood, the British single mother who gave birth to octuplets in 1996, became pregnant after reputedly rejecting her doctors' advice. She later hired PR representatives to sell her story to the tabloids.

The American family may be tempted by similar offers of sponsorship. They will need all the help they can get. As every parent knows, it takes effort to keep an average family running. For a whole football team (almost), an army of helpers will be required.

Anyone thinking of following the same course should think again, doctors say. Adam Balen, professor of reproductive medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals, said: "Many couples with fertility problems think they would like to have a complete family all at once. Our advice is to have one at a time. It is by far the safest for mother and baby."