Your female anatomy is, of course, a physical part of you, but you’re probably not as familiar with it as, say, your eyes or your feet. Maybe that’s because it can literally be a pain in the neck to see anything below the belt—especially when you’re pregnant. Or maybe it’s because you’d prefer to just step back and let your body do its thing. But getting up close and personal with what’s happening south of the border can help you know when something is awry—or even when your new arrival is on his way.
Let’s take a quick tour of your key components.
Ovaries. Responsible for both hormone and egg production, these small, oval-shaped organs flank the uterus. Each month, they alternate in releasing a single egg. (Occasionally two eggs are released in a single cycle—upping the odds for fraternal twins.)
Fallopian tubes. Connecting the ovaries to the uterus, these tunnels are typically where an egg and sperm rendezvous during conception. (Aw!)
Uterus. This pear-shaped organ is where a fertilized egg takes up residence, implanting itself in the thick lining and growing into a ready-for-the-world baby. (When you’re not pregnant, the shedding of said lining results in a period.) Your uterus, or “womb,” is what contracts during labor.
Cervix. Technically the lower part of the uterus, this cylinder-shaped neck connects the upper part of the uterus to the vagina. It’s where the mucus plug forms and what thins (effacement) and widens (dilation) during labor.
Vagina. Also known as the “birth canal,” the vagina connects the uterus to the outside of the body. It’s where your partner’s penis goes in during sex and where your baby comes out during childbirth—and it expands in both length and depth to accommodate either occasion.
If you’ve never really taken a gander at your private parts, it’s time to pull out a handheld mirror and get up close and personal. Make a mental note of color, shape, size, folds and bumps. Just avoid feeling self-conscious about any little quirks. “It really doesn’t matter if you have long labia or short, symmetrical or asymmetrical, brown or pink. The size, shape and color have no influence on function,” assures Julia Di Paolo, a pelvic health physiotherapist based in Ontario, Canada. No two vulvas look the same—and that includes yours.
However, it’s important to get a sense of what things look like down below because you will probably be the only one who notices if there is a change. “I tell my patients, ‘It’s like having a mole. No one really cares that you have one, but we are all interested if there is a change in it,’” says Di Paolo. “Looking in the mirror every couple of months will help you to notice changes, which can then alert us to something that may be amiss.”
Knowing what your vulva looked like before the birth can help you notice any changes postpartum that might impact function, such as incontinence or sexual activity. Often, everything goes back to normal in the weeks after delivery, but occasionally, things look different.
Keep it clean
A healthy vagina is a vagina full of bacteria and yeast. “That’s right, bacteria and yeast should be present in the vagina; however, these organisms must be in a harmonious balance,” says Russell Bartels, MD, OB/GYN at Scottsdale Center for Women’s Health (scottsdalewomenshealth.com). That’s why it’s important to avoid douching, which wipes out all the good stuff and could leave you susceptible to an infection.
When the balance is tipped in favor of more bacteria, bacterial vaginosis can arise. “This is characterized by a yellowish, watery discharge with a fishy odor,” says Bartels. “The treatment is usually with an antibiotic (oral or vaginal) to help restore the balance again.”
When yeast takes over, the upshot is—you guessed it—a yeast infection. It’s characterized
by a thick, whitish discharge without any significant odor and is typically treated with an antifungal (oral or vaginal).
The symptoms of both types of infection can also include burning and itching. In that case, it’s important to rule out any sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis.
If you think you might have an infection during pregnancy, talk to your midwife or OB before self-medicating with over-the-counter treatments.
At your cervix
Throughout pregnancy, your cervix remains firm and closed to keep your baby-to-be secure and supported in the uterus. It lengthens a bit to put a little extra distance between your peanut and the outside world and forms a mucus plug near the opening to the vagina, which acts like a cork to keep unwanted bacteria out. (If your doctor notices during an exam or ultrasound that your cervix is on the short end of the spectrum, you could be at risk for preterm labor, so she’ll want to monitor you closely.)
As baby’s arrival draws near, you might lose your mucus plug (look for a mucous glob in your undies or the toilet—gross, but normal), and your cervix will begin to shorten and widen to make room for baby with the help of uterine contractions.
A tear down where?
As a result of hormonal changes and the pressure of those intense uterine contractions, the vagina will stretch when it’s time for your wee one’s arrival. “The vagina stretches substantially during the birthing process,” says Brett Worly, MD, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Sometimes, though, it needs just a little more room to accommodate the tiny human passing through it, and vaginal tearing occurs. Tears range from first degree to fourth degree, with the former being the most minor. First-degree lacerations will affect only the skin, but more severe lacerations could affect the underlying muscle, too.
“Although tears are generally fixed at the time of delivery, they can sometimes cause a vagina to look cosmetically different, or even feel different, once the healing process is completed,” says Worly. If you have vaginal pain, are unhappy with the appearance of your vagina, or if sex is no longer pleasurable eight weeks or more after delivery, talk to your practitioner.