More than a third of Midland couples have struggled to conceive, according to a national report on fertility published today.

The survey, commissioned by Red magazine, found that four out of ten women (39 per cent) in the region had difficulty in starting a family and of those 55 per cent felt they had left motherhood too late.

It also said 60 per cent of women, who have not yet had a baby, feared their past lifestyle could affect their chance of becoming a parent. Smoking, drinking, stress and poor diet can all cause irreparable damage to fertility, which in women peaks in the mid-20s but falls sharply after the age of 35.

Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of the Midland Fertility Services clinic based in Aldridge, Walsall, said the survey - which quizzed 3,200 women, average age of 37 - illustrated the vital part age plays in a successful conception.

She said: "The women who took part in this study are in their 30s, so its findings are very interesting because the usual figure quoted for couples having difficulties in conceiving is one in six, but this has found one in three readers struggled to start a family.

"What is most disturbing is the lack of awareness about how lifestyle choices can impact on a woman's fertility, and coupled with the paucity in the NHS provision of fertility treatment, it paints a worrying picture for the future.

"Women in their 30s may look younger than their years on the outside, but unfortunately this does not mean they can turn back their biological clock, it's just not possible to reverse that.

"And this isn't just Alpha Women who have put themselves and their careers first, but also women who have come out of long relationships that they thought would ultimately end in marriage and babies."

One woman whose previous lifestyle almost destroyed her chances of starting a family is Sally Richardson.

After months of hormone therapy and fertility drugs, the 30-year-old aerobics instructor gave birth to their first child, Millie, at Good Hope Hospital, in Sutton Coldfield, last Thursday.

Mrs Richardson, who lives in Four Oaks, battled anorexia after exam stress and teen peer pressure led her from serious dieting on 1,200 calories a day to surviving on a single lollipop, which has about 50 calories.

In November 1995, then aged 19 and weighing just 5st 4lb (24.5kg), she was admitted to the Woodbourne Priory, in Edgbaston, where she was treated for nearly a year.

"My periods stopped just before I went into hospital and they never returned, so I always knew having a baby wouldn't be easy if at all possible," said Mrs Richardson.

"I had begun hormone and drug therapy with Midland Fertility Services clinic in Aldridge, but doctors feared I might miscarry as my body might reject anything in my womb, because it had been so long since my last period.

"So instead I was put on the pill for a month to generate one to help clean my system out and to start the injections again on the right day."

In December she conceived through a process called Intra-Uterine Insemination, using her husband's sperm, and two weeks later, just before Christmas, the clinic confirmed she was pregnant.

Mrs Richardson, who now weighs "about 10st", added: "Anyone reading this who wants to have a family one day but has serious issues with food and their diet, they must seek help, because being a size 0 will not make you happy.

"I realise exactly how lucky I am to have Millie in my life now. We both feel very blessed."

Researchers also found that the cost of fertility treatment could also be debilitating, as couples in Britain have spent £1.7 billion trying to conceive. The average spent per couple is £4,782 with only 23 per cent able to access free NHS treatment.