Caitlin Layton's nerves kept her from seeing a fertility doctor over the years, but when she did, it turned into one of the best decisions she ever made.

Layton is 11 weeks pregnant, but it took her a long time to reach this point, and she had doubts that she would ever make it.

"It is something you don't want to have to do as a couple," said Layton, 27, of Upper Township. "I'm so glad I did it. I didn't have to do it right away. We still could have kept trying. We could have waited. Next time around, I'm going to go straight there. I'm not going to play around with it."

The quest to conceive can be both stressful and heartbreaking. But many women can improve their chances of having a baby simply by talking to their doctors. A recent study by the Yale School of Medicine found many women might not be as well-informed as they think about their reproductive health.

For example, 25 percent of women in the survey were unaware of the effects of smoking, obesity, irregular periods and sexually transmitted infections on fertility. Six out of 10 women surveyed thought intercourse should happen after ovulation, instead of before, in order to increase the chances of becoming pregnant. A majority of women think having sex more than once per day will make them more likely to become pregnant, but this can be overkill. Sperm count decreases after intercourse, so sex more than every other day is actually counterproductive, doctors say.

The survey found that while 75 percent of respondents identified their health care providers as their top source of reproductive health-related information, only 50 percent of women actually discuss their reproductive health with medical providers. Researchers believe this lack of dialogue has led to a number of misbeliefs about conception.

Still, as Layton learned, even doing everything right is no guarantee of success in an effort to have a baby.

When she and her husband, Donald, 30, decided to start a family, the 25-year-old woman made sure to consult her gynecologist, Dr. Seva Milov. She started taking prenatal vitamins to prepare her body for pregnancy.

"I was young and healthy. We didn't think we would have problems," Layton said. "I guess some people aren't as lucky for it to happen right away."

Layton experienced the setbacks of both a rare molar pregnancy, which gives the egg no potential for survival, and two chemical pregnancies, which are more common. A chemical pregnancy is a miscarriage that happens very early.

After experiencing these problems, Layton was advised by Milov to see a fertility doctor.

"When he said we had to start fertility, I thought it was going to be a big process. It really isn't. I think the most I had to take was five pills a day, basically, that just helps you ovulate," said Layton, who added other people's experiences with fertility treatments might not be as simple as hers.

The optimal time for a woman to become pregnant with the least risk is between the ages of 20 to 35, said Dr. Robert Debbs, director of the Penn Maternal-Fetal Medicine Program at the Shore Medical Center in Somers Point. Couples that want to have children should have their basic health checked by a doctor to make sure there are no medical problems and that their immunizations are up to date, Debbs said. They also should try to have their weight under control, Debbs said.

"For conception, you can only get pregnant around five days a month, and those days are surrounding ovulation," Debbs said.

Women who are thinking of having a child should take prenatal vitamins for one or two months before attempting to become pregnant. The prenatal vitamins reduce the risk of developmental problems such as spina bifida, Debbs said.

With all the attention women receive when it comes to pregnancy, more than 40 percent of fertility problems are because of male infertility, Debbs said.

A man, who had the mumps as a child, could have his sperm production impacted by it, but there is medication to increase sperm production, Debbs said. Surgery also is an option to increase a male's ability to reproduce, Debbs said.

Sperm also can be removed from men who are part of a couple having problems conceiving, Debbs said.

There are assistive reproduction methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which is commonly referred to as IVF, Debbs said. IVF is the process of fertilization by manually combining an egg and a sperm in a laboratory dish, which is a process that has been in use since the late 1970s, Debbs said.

"It's most important for a couple to pay attention to their health before they embark on a pregnancy," said Debbs, who added smoking tobacco reduces sperm mobility.

About half of all couples who are trying to conceive - unprotected intercourse even once or twice a week - will become pregnant within three months if each person is in their prime fertility years, said Dr. Peter VanDeerlin of the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology. One out of eight couples will fail to conceive after one year of trying, VanDeerlin said. If women are age 35 years or older, it is recommended they seek medical attention if they have failed to conceive within six months of trying, VanDeerlin said.

Women who have had the sexually transmitted diseases of chlamydia or gonorrhea or a big pelvic infection can have more difficulty becoming pregnant, VanDeerlin said.

"Those 40 and over are going to have a lot lower success, and they are going to be more anxious about things," VanDeerlin said. "The fallopian tubes are very important, that's where the egg and the sperm meet. It's a conduit."

For those women, who are age 35 and younger, it is suggested they seek medical attention if they are not pregnant after a year, VanDeerlin said.

Women with irregular or sporadic periods, who have not conceived within three months, should see a medical professional regardless of age, VanDeerlin said. It could be a sign they are not ovulating at all, which is a simple matter to fix, VanDeerlin said.

Some women will purchase ovulation predictor kits to help them see when they are ovulating, VanDeerlin said.

"It is a urine test they can do at home. They can buy the kit at a pharmacy," VanDeerlin said. "The kit changes to a positive sign when they are going to ovulate the next day. It's not perfectly accurate. Sometimes, it is misleading, but it is something that can empower women."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this report

Contact Vincent Jackson:

609-272-7202

Tips for women trying to conceive

•Take 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid every day if you are planning or capable of pregnancy to lower your risk of some birth abnormalities of the brain and spine, including spina bifida. All women need folic acid every day. Talk to your doctor about your folic acid needs. Some doctors prescribe prenatal vitamins that contain higher amounts of folic acid.

•Stop smoking and drinking alcohol.

•If you have a medical condition, be sure it is under control. Some conditions that can affect pregnancy or be affected by it include asthma, diabetes, oral health, obesity and epilepsy.

•Talk to your doctor about any over-the-counter and prescription medicines you are using. These include dietary or herbal supplements. Be sure your vaccinations are up to date.

•Avoid contact with toxic substances or materials that could cause infection at work and at home. Stay away from chemicals and cat or rodent feces.