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Dr. Gail Saltz pens plain-talk guide to puberty

As children reach the age of 8 or 9, their bodies begin to change noticeably and they experience feelings they have never felt before. As a parent, your job is to help your child through what can be a difficult, confusing time. In her new book, "Changing You! A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality," TODAY contributing psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz offers a plain-talk guide to puberty for children between the ages of 9 and 15. Here's an excerpt:

Your body is amazing! It can do so many things — play, eat, read, run, swim and sleep. It is constantly changing and growing, inside and out. Every day, you are getting taller, stronger and bigger, too.

Do you ever wonder what all these changes mean? They mean that your body is getting ready so that one day, you can make a baby!

Sometime between the ages of 9 and 14 (it can be a little earlier or later), boys and girls enter a time called puberty. During puberty, your body changes and looks more and more like an adult’s. But the changes happen gradually, and you really are still a kid. So, what does this feel like?

Well, sometimes this can feel confusing. You may feel excited and thrilled with the changes one day and then kind of grumpy and even scared the next. It’s all very new, and it’s all very normal. Most kids feel a little bit of everything. And everyone goes through the same physical changes. What kind of changes are they?

When boys enter puberty, their bodies grow, and their genitals grow, too. If you are a boy, your genitals include a penis and, below that, a scrotum, the sac that holds two testicles. Also, inside the body, boys have glands called seminal vesicles and a prostate gland, which produce fluids for sperm to live in.

In boys, hair begins to grow around the penis, under the arms and over other parts of the body and the lower face. Their testicles begin to make sperm. Sperm swim inside fluid that the glands produce. Boys will also have more frequent erections. An erection is when blood flow to the penis increases and the penis grows hard and stands out straight. This is normal, and the penis will gradually go back to being the way it was.

Girls’ bodies are different from boys’ bodies in many ways. Girls have a vulva on the outside of their bodies and a uterus and ovaries on the inside.

The vulva consists of two sets of labia (inner and outer), a clitoris and a vagina. The outer labia look like a pair of skin folds that cover the vagina and clitoris. The clitoris is a pea-sized bump toward the front of the vulva that is very sensitive to touch. The vagina is a stretchy tube that reaches farther back into the body; the uterus is attached inside.

Girls’ bodies grow during puberty, too. As with boys, hair will grow under their arms, on their legs, and over the outside of their genitals, particularly the mons, the triangle of soft tissue that covers the pubic bone. They will also begin to grow breasts. Sometimes breasts grow quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes one breast can grow a little faster than the other.

The ovaries in a girl’s body contain tiny eggs, which are released, one per month, into the uterus. About one year to 18 months after their breasts start to grow, girls will begin to menstruate. Menstruating, also called getting your period, is when a small amount of blood and tissue that was lining the uterus is shed out of the body through the vagina. Periods happen once every month and last a few days. They are Mother Nature’s way of cleaning the uterus when there is no baby inside.

Once a boy and a girl have gone through all their body changes, their sperm and egg are capable of making a baby. A baby grows when an egg and a sperm join together. Since an egg is inside a woman’s body and a sperm is inside a man’s, you may be wondering, how does the sperm get to the egg? Good question!

When a man and a woman love each other and decide that they want to have a child, they will do something called “sexual intercourse” or “having sex.” This is when the man lies very close to the woman and puts his erect penis inside her vagina. It feels good for both the man and woman. They will also hug and kiss and cuddle. This is a very special way of expressing how much they love each other.

When this happens, the man’s sperm is released through the penis and into the vagina. Thousands of sperm swim up the vagina, into the uterus, and toward the egg. If a sperm finds an egg, then it will join with the egg. This now becomes what is called a cell, and this cell will divide. Dividing is the way that it grows, eventually becoming a fetus, the word for a baby when it is still inside the uterus.

When a woman has a fetus growing inside her uterus, she is called pregnant. While the baby is inside the uterus, it will get all its food and air from its mother through a tube that connects them. This tube is called the umbilical cord. The baby will grow for about nine months.

Once the baby is ready to be born, the mother’s uterus, which is made mostly of muscle, will begin squeezing the baby out. This is called labor. You may be wondering, how does a whole baby get out of a mother’s body? Even thinking about it may seem a little scary. The baby will come out the vagina, which becomes very, very stretchy so that the baby can fit through without harming the mother. A doctor will help the baby come out of the vagina. After the baby is born, the vagina will go back to its original size and shape. It will be the same as it was before the baby was born.

After the baby is born, the umbilical cord, which attached the baby to the inside of the mother, is cut. Now the baby needs to be fed from either a bottle or from the mother’s breast, which makes and is filled with milk. Breasts do not make milk unless the woman has given birth to a baby. If she has, then breasts can make enough milk to feed the baby for many months.

It is amazing to realize that one day when you are an adult, your body will be grown up and be able to have babies. Until you are an adult and ready to make such important decisions about being sexual with someone and about having babies, it is OK to appreciate and explore your own body. It is also good to ask questions about your body when you don’t understand some change or when you feel worried about something.

Your body is such an important and special part of who you are. It can experience all kinds of wonderful, amazing things. It feels wonderful to be hugged by people you love. It also feels good and is perfectly normal to touch your own body privately. Remember, though, that your body is only for you to touch, and someone else’s body is only for them. Until you are grown up and are with another grown-up who gives you their permission, your body and others’ should stay private. If someone else ever pressures you about touching your body, you should tell them no and then tell an adult you trust.

Sometimes as you are growing up, especially when your body starts to really change, you may think about “sexy stuff” and wonder, is this OK? Not only is it OK, most kids do. Everybody’s thoughts may be a little different, and you may feel you want to keep yours private. But if any thoughts you are having are ever worrying you or seem scary, it really helps to talk about it with someone like a parent.

So now you know how your body will change as you grow up. You also know how the sperm gets to the egg and where babies come from. It isn’t really all that mysterious, but it is rather magical, because our bodies are pretty amazing and also do some very special things!

Here are some general guidelines to consider when preparing to talk to your child about sexuality.

1.  Find out exactly what your child is asking about. Then provide them with honest and correct information. You do not need to give them sexual details that they are not specifically asking about. Let them guide the conversation.

2.  If it makes you more comfortable, use a book as a tool.

3.  Start the conversation by expressing your expectations. For example, you can say, “Sex is a way of expressing your love to your husband or wife someday.” A recent study showed that a mother’s opinion about sex definitely affected the age of their daughter’s first sexual encounter.

4.  If you are particularly anxious about sexual matters, be aware that your child may interpret your anxiety as a message that there is something shameful about sex. Prepare for your conversation by reading some nonfiction books written for preteens about sex. This will help to reduce your nervousness.

5.  Before your child is in middle school, make sure you have this talk, even if they have not brought it up.

Excerpted from "Changing You! A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality" by Gail Saltz, M.D. Copyright 2007 Gail Saltz. Reprinted with permission of Dutton Children's Books. All rights reserved.

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