If you are going to understand what’s happening to your daughter’s body, you need to know what you’re working with. We offer you guides to vulvovaginal symptoms, conditions and common children’s vaginal conditions, and what to do about them so you can feel just as comfortable with a girl’s body as you would a boy.
We help you navigate the folds confidently.
Know your anatomy
Understanding how your child’s vulva and vagina are different to an adult woman’s is important, since it’s possible that your only experience with vaginas is in a sexual context with an adult. This is helpful, but only up to a point. Men in relationships with other men with very little experience in looking at or touching vulvas and vaginas may need a few more lessons.
This relationship to sexual contexts, and a lack of knowledge about any female’s body, can make men shy away from making important investigations and decisions about their daughter’s body. While this is understandable, with a bit more knowledge on what’s going on inside and out, you can feel confident in making executive care decisions. Knowing the anatomy of a child’s vulva and vagina is your first step.
Part of knowing the anatomy of a girl is calling things by their real names.
Call me by my name
You may be calling your daughter’s vagina or vulva by a name other than it’s real name, and now is the time to stop that cold turkey, and start naming body parts accurately. This is about much more than your possible embarrassment, and becomes a safety mechanism that you arm your daughter with.
Naming body parts accurately is important for a few reasons:
- If something goes wrong, your daughter can name at least the area that is sore accurately to you or to a doctor
- You and your daughter should feel comfortable referring to body parts by their real names, just like you would an arm or a foot
- Using proper names stops kids feeling the shame of their parents around their bodies – don’t give your girl a hangup – she’s already got a pretty hard run ahead of her
- If someone touches her inappropriately, your daughter can confidently speak up – ‘down there’ is pretty vague and can cause either unnecessary alarm or a lack of alarm when it is required
- Teach her the body parts of boys too
- Be prepared for your daughter to humiliate you inadvertently! Don’t tell her off for things that aren’t actually bad and use it as a teaching moment and laugh
To know what her body parts are called, you’ll need to check out the diagrams. You will need to be the judge of how much she needs to know based on her age and comprehension.
The most important names relate generally to the vagina and vulva – the inside is the vagina and the outside is the vulva. There is actually not one single name in English for the whole vulvovaginal area. Most people just call it the vagina, and mean the whole area, which is fine up to a certain point.
As she gets older and other things possibly go wrong, you can teach her other names for other areas, like vulva, labia, anus, clitoris, and perineum. You can do this teaching on a need-to-know basis as your child grows, but don’t shy away from it if it doesn’t come up. Take your educational moments where you can, so that if later something comes up, your daughter has her words. This means she’ll also have her words if something happens to her and you aren’t around to translate.
What can go wrong
Vulvovaginitis and infections
A child’s vagina has very little bacteria (good or bad) in it, because it is the influence of oestrogen that encourages friendly bacteria to grow. Oestrogen, which only starts at puberty, causes the vaginal cells to produce glycogen (a sugar) that lactobacilli feed on. Without the oestrogen or glycogen, a prepubertal girl’s vagina is very much like her grandmother’s in many ways, sans the wrinkles and greys.
This can mean her putting the wrong things in or close to her vagina (think wiping from back to front, dirty toys or toilet paper, you name it) can cause infections, as there isn’t a lot to defend the vagina from invaders. Vulvovaginitis remains a common affliction of young girls, but usually identifying the cause and removing it/treating it solves the problem quickly.
Low to no oestrogen also makes her vulva and vagina look and behave in a unique way that will change once she hits puberty. This is important, because your relationship will change at this point, and you need to know the signs that she is having hormonal shifts and puberty is impending.
Understanding the onset of puberty
Puberty happens over a couple of years, with the first signs puffy, sore nipples and pubic hair. She’ll start to smell different and need a bit of coaching on personal hygiene, and of course some deodorant (and instructions on how to use it).
The pubic hair will start as a fine fluff, and there won’t be much. Usually she’ll have some extra fat on her body, since a girl needs at least 17 per cent body fat for enough oestrogen to be made to trigger ovulation and the menstrual cycle.
It’s important to be very considerate of her changing body and privacy needs. This will signal a change in your relationship where she goes from being an open kid to a more secretive, shy pre-teen. It’s important to have set the scene with her before this happens to ensure that she feels like she can talk to you about things that might concern her.
It’s also useful to have set her up with a female adult, if her mother is not around, so that she has someone to ask tricky questions that she doesn’t want to ask you. If you have educated yourself, however, and show yourself to be knowledgeable, you may just find that she feels comfortable to ask you some things. This is a great spot to be, but most men miss this opportunity.
Understanding her period
You may have spent your whole life avoiding talking to women about their periods, and know zilch. Before your daughter gets her period, give yourself a crash course in periods and the menstrual cycle so you don’t miss important clues.
The important part of periods that you need to keep an eye on are:
- Watch that she gets her period within the allotted time frame (i.e. after age 10 and before age 15 give or take), and if it doesn’t come, take her to the doctor
- Make sure her periods are reasonably regular and fit into the not too close together and not too far apart category (between 21 and 35 days apart, any number between is fine each time)
- Teach her how to track her periods using a period tracker app or calendar
- Make sure she understands when she ovulates, and how she can learn to feel it (this helps later when unwanted pregnancies are on the cards – knowledge is power)
- Ensure her period pain is managed adequately – teach her how to use self-care to alleviate period pain at home, without drugs, so that she can treat herself anywhere anytime, and also buy her drugs
- Take her to the doctor if her period pain is severe or even just really bad – she may have something more going on than just her period, and period pain is serious and can be debilitating
- She has choices regarding what she would like to use as her menstrual hygiene products (pads, tampons, menstrual cup, period undies) and someone to teach her how to use them (can be the internet)
- Making sure she doesn’t feel embarrassed asking for supplies
- Arrange for her to buy new underwear more regularly – periods can come unexpectedly and they really do ruin underwear – black or red cotton underwear is a good choice to minimise shopping
- Teach her how to use stain remover and wash her own clothes
- Explain period hygiene and etiquette
- Explain what she can expect from her period
Other stuff to be aware of when you have a daughter
- Make sure she has a good relationship with your family doctor or get her a new doctor – it helps if it is a woman and not an old guy
- Make sure to normalise being pelvically examined so that she understands that it is normal, required, and nothing to be afraid of
- If she complains about one of her practitioners, get her a new one – trust is imperative
- Listen to her problems and be kind – you don’t always have to solve things, she may just need your ear