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What changes do the vagina and vulva go through from birth to death?

Have you ever wondered how the vagina changes, from before birth to after the childbearing years are over? SteadyHealth takes a look at the "stages of the vagina", from childhood to losing your virginity, and from childbirth to the menopause. 

How Do Vaginas Start Out?

A baby's chromosomes — and therewith a its biological sex — are determined at conception. Before about the seventh to ninth week of pregnancy, all fetuses look pretty identical down there, though. They've got what's called a genital ridge, a primordial genital "soup", that starts developing into male genitals when testosterone triggers them to, and into female genitals when it doesn't. (That's right — the female body is the "default setting"!) At around nine weeks gestation, the Müllerian ducts, also called paramesonephric ducts, start to develop into all the bits and pieces that will later make up the female reproductive tract. The fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and part of the vagina will all form from them. [1]

Prematurely born girls will often have a larger clitoris and larger inner labia, just like they would have had if they were still in the womb. Full-term girls, meanwhile, will have developed more prominent outer labia. Under the influence of maternal hormones, baby girls sometimes show some vaginal or even slightly bloody mucus. This is nothing to worry about and will soon subside, though parents should always feel free to check with their baby's pediatrician. [2]

Between the immediate post-birth changes to the vagina and vulva and puberty, not much happens — but the whirlwind of changes that shake things up during puberty more than "make up for that". 

What Happens To The Vagina And Vulva During Puberty?

Female puberty should start between the ages of eight and just under 15 [3], when the hypothalamus plunges gonadotropins into the bloodstream. Lots happens around that time, but we're here to talk about vaginas and vulvas. Sometime between 18 months and two years after a girl first starts developing breasts, she'll start her first menstrual period. (Did you know that most other mammals don't menstruate the way humans do? It's true!) During the menstrual cycle, the uterine lining prepares for the possible fertilization of an egg — released during ovulation about halfway through the menstrual cycle — and then sheds itself if pregnancy didn't occur, in the four-day to more-than-a-week-long ordeal we call periods. 

Puberty doesn't just mean the onset of menstruation, of course. You'll also notice the growth of pubic hair and your vulva's transformation. The labia minora and majora, your vaginal lips, become more prominent, along with your clitoris, the primary center of pleasure that's actually a whole lot larger than it appears to be. [4]

Still want to know more about pubertal changes? Read what every teen wants to know about puberty and sex!

So, how large is the vagina? Research indicates that the vagina itself has an average length of 62.7 mm from the cervix to the entrance, while it's 32.5 mm wide at its most "roomy" part and a surprisingly tiny 26.2 mm at its entrance, the introitus. The enormous variety seen between individual women is greatly influenced by factors like if they've had children, how old they are, and how tall they are. [5]

How Does Your Vagina Change When You Lose Your Virginity?

Most females are born with hymens, membranes that cover a portion of the vaginal entrance. Culturally and religiously associated with virginity, often defined as the state of not having had sex, but also sometimes as an intact hymen, female anatomy doesn't always collaborate with these man-made ideas. Your hymen may be so elastic that it survives childbirth, or it can be so fragile that it ruptures when you're practicing for a gymnastics competition. Inserting tampons, too, can cause a hymen to rupture. [6

Those girls and women whose hymens do rupture when they are ready to lose their virginity can expect the loss of virginity to cause some significant vaginal changes, though! To illustrate this, let's take a look at the different kinds of hymen out there:
  • A microperforate hymen is a hymen that covers so much of the opening to the vagina that only a tiny little hole is left. While menstrual flow can usually leave through this small opening, both inserting tampons and sex may be difficult, and females with microperforate hymens may need surgery to kiss the darn thing goodbye. 
  • A septate hymen is one that looks like a thick fleshy "string" down the middle of the vagina's opening, essentially creating two separate openings. This can make inserting tampons of having sex hard, and I can speak from experience in saying that it will probably eventually break on one end, leaving a loose, hanging bit that you'll want to talk to a doctor about having removed. 
  • If you have an imperforate hymen, your vaginal opening will completely be covered, to the point not even menstrual fluids can escape. This can be diagnosed long before puberty, and even at birth, and also requires surgery to fix. 
  • Your average, normal hymen is half-moon shaped and while its rupture may cause some changes to the appearance of your vagina, they can be so small that you really don't notice, too. [7]

The Big Vaginal Transformation: How Will Childbirth Change Your Vagina?

Well, let's put it this way — we've already seen how wide the vaginal opening usually is, and a newborn's head circumference is typically somewhere between 31 and 38 centimeters [8]. Vaginal childbirth causes things to become a bit stretchier down there; about that, there's no doubt. You may have an episiotomy, a surgical cut extending from the lower portion of your vaginal opening to the perenium to facilitate an easier birth, or you may tear naturally. [9] Yes, your doctor will stitch all that up, but no, it's never gonna look quite the same again. 

How will that affect your sex life? Not much, really, except right after you give birth. If you're wondering what to really expect from postpartum sex, I can tell you it will most likely be absolutely fine if you give yourself at least two weeks to heal and perhaps wait until your lochia (postpartum bleeding) comes to an end. Stop if anything hurts, though, and consult a doctor. 

The Menopause: What Happens To Your Vagina During The Next Big Stage Of Life?

You may well already have read that the vaginal wall becomes thinner and less stretchy as you enter the menopause and your estrogen levels decrease. This often leads to vaginal dryness, and you lubricant may no longer be optional if you want to continue having a satisfying and painless sex life. [10]

What nobody tells you — because it is, let's face it, an intimate topic — is what happens to the external appearance of your vulva as you enter the menopause. I badgered some post-menopausal women to talk to me about the subject, and they told me that your pubic hair doesn't just eventually go gray, it also becomes thinner and starts falling out. Didn't see that one coming, did you? Apart from that, your vulva ages right along with the rest of your body. Your labia become more wrinkly and the skin around your vulva looser.

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