All living things reproduce. Reproduction — the process by which organisms make more organisms like themselves — is one of the things that sets living things apart from nonliving matter. But even though the reproductive system is essential to keeping a species alive, unlike other body systems, it's not essential to keeping an individual alive.
In the human reproductive process, two kinds of sex cells, or gametes, are involved. The male gamete, or sperm, and the female gamete, the egg or ovum, meet in the female's reproductive system. When the sperm fertilizes, or meets, the egg, this fertilized egg is called the zygote. The zygote goes through a process of becoming an embryo and developing into a fetus.
Both the male and female reproductive systems are essential for reproduction. The female needs a male to fertilize her egg, even though it is she who carries offspring through pregnancy and childbirth.
Humans, like other organisms, pass certain characteristics of themselves to the next generation through their genes, the special carriers of human traits. The genes that parents pass along are what make their children similar to others in their family, but also what make each child unique. These genes come from the male's sperm and the female's egg.
Most species have two sexes: male and female. Each sex has its own unique reproductive system. They are different in shape and structure, but both are specifically designed to produce, nourish, and transport either the egg or sperm.
Unlike the male, the human female has a reproductive system located entirely in the pelvis. The external part of the female reproductive organs is called the vulva, which means covering. Located between the legs, the vulva covers the opening to the vagina and other reproductive organs located inside the body.
The fleshy area located just above the top of the vaginal opening is called the mons pubis. Two pairs of skin flaps called the labia (which means lips) surround the vaginal opening. The clitoris, a small sensory organ, is located toward the front of the vulva where the folds of the labia join. Between the labia are openings to the urethra (the canal that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body) and vagina. Once girls become sexually mature, the outer labia and the mons pubis are covered by pubic hair.
A female's internal reproductive organs are the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
The vagina is a muscular, hollow tube that extends from the vaginal opening to the uterus. The vagina is about 3 to 5 inches (8 to 12 centimeters) long in a grown woman. Because it has muscular walls, it can expand and contract. This ability to become wider or narrower allows the vagina to accommodate something as slim as a tampon and as wide as a baby. The vagina's muscular walls are lined with mucous membranes, which keep it protected and moist.
The vagina serves three purposes:
A thin sheet of tissue with one or more holes in it called the hymen partially covers the opening of the vagina. Hymens are often different from female to female. Most women find their hymens have stretched or torn after their first sexual experience, and the hymen may bleed a little (this usually causes little, if any, pain). Some women who have had sex don't have much of a change in their hymens, though.
The vagina connects with the uterus, or womb, at the cervix (which means neck). The cervix has strong, thick walls. The opening of the cervix is very small (no wider than a straw), which is why a tampon can never get lost inside a girl's body. During childbirth, the cervix can expand to allow a baby to pass.
The uterus is shaped like an upside-down pear, with a thick lining and muscular walls — in fact, the uterus contains some of the strongest muscles in the female body. These muscles are able to expand and contract to accommodate a growing fetus and then help push the baby out during labor. When a woman isn't pregnant, the uterus is only about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) long and 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide.
At the upper corners of the uterus, the fallopian tubes connect the uterus to the ovaries. The ovaries are two oval-shaped organs that lie to the upper right and left of the uterus. They produce, store, and release eggs into the fallopian tubes in the process called ovulation. Each ovary measures about 1½ to 2 inches (4 to 5 centimeters) in a grown woman.
There are two fallopian tubes, each attached to a side of the uterus. The fallopian tubes are about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long and about as wide as a piece of spaghetti. Within each tube is a tiny passageway no wider than a sewing needle. At the other end of each fallopian tube is a fringed area that looks like a funnel. This fringed area wraps around the ovary but doesn't completely attach to it. When an egg pops out of an ovary, it enters the fallopian tube. Once the egg is in the fallopian tube, tiny hairs in the tube's lining help push it down the narrow passageway toward the uterus.
The ovaries are also part of the endocrine system because they produce female sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.
The female reproductive system enables a woman to:
Sexual reproduction couldn't happen without the sexual organs called the gonads. Although most people think of the gonads as the male testicles, both sexes actually have gonads: In females the gonads are the ovaries. The female gonads produce female gametes (eggs); the male gonads produce male gametes (sperm). After an egg is fertilized by the sperm, the fertilized egg is called the zygote.
When a baby girl is born, her ovaries contain hundreds of thousands of eggs, which remain inactive until puberty begins. At puberty, the pituitary gland, located in the central part of the brain, starts making hormones that stimulate the ovaries to produce female sex hormones, including estrogen. The secretion of these hormones causes a girl to develop into a sexually mature woman.
Toward the end of puberty, girls begin to release eggs as part of a monthly period called the menstrual cycle. Approximately once a month, during ovulation, an ovary sends a tiny egg into one of the fallopian tubes.
Unless the egg is fertilized by a sperm while in the fallopian tube, the egg dries up and leaves the body about 2 weeks later through the uterus — this is menstruation. Blood and tissues from the inner lining of the uterus combine to form the menstrual flow, which in most girls lasts from 3 to 5 days. A girl's first period is called menarche.
It's common for women and girls to experience some discomfort in the days leading to their periods. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) includes both physical and emotional symptoms that many girls and women get right before their periods, such as acne, bloating, fatigue, backaches, sore breasts, headaches, constipation, diarrhea, food cravings, depression, irritability, or difficulty concentrating or handling stress. PMS is usually at its worst during the 7 days before a girl's period starts and disappears once it begins.
Many girls also experience abdominal cramps during the first few days of their periods caused by prostaglandins, chemicals in the body that make the smooth muscle in the uterus contract. These involuntary contractions can be either dull or sharp and intense.
It can take up to 2 years from menarche for a girl's body to develop a regular menstrual cycle. During that time, her body is adjusting to the hormones puberty brings. On average, the monthly cycle for an adult woman is 28 days, but the range is from 23 to 35 days.
If a female and male have sex within several days of the female's ovulation, fertilization can occur. When the male ejaculates (when semen leaves a male's penis), between 0.05 and 0.2 fluid ounces (1.5 to 6.0 milliliters) of semen is deposited into the vagina. Between 75 and 900 million sperm are in this small amount of semen, and they "swim" up from the vagina through the cervix and uterus to meet the egg in the fallopian tube. It takes only one sperm to fertilize the egg.
About a week after the sperm fertilizes the egg, the fertilized egg (zygote) has become a multicelled blastocyst. A blastocyst is about the size of a pinhead, and it's a hollow ball of cells with fluid inside. The blastocyst burrows itself into the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium. The hormone estrogen causes the endometrium to become thick and rich with blood. Progesterone, another hormone released by the ovaries, keeps the endometrium thick with blood so that the blastocyst can attach to the uterus and absorb nutrients from it. This process is called implantation.
As cells from the blastocyst take in nourishment, another stage of development, the embryonic stage, begins. The inner cells form a flattened circular shape called the embryonic disk, which will develop into a baby. The outer cells become thin membranes that form around the baby. The cells multiply thousands of times and move to new positions to eventually become the embryo.
After approximately 8 weeks, the embryo is about the size of an adult's thumb, but almost all of its parts — the brain and nerves, the heart and blood, the stomach and intestines, and the muscles and skin — have formed.
During the fetal stage, which lasts from 9 weeks after fertilization to birth, development continues as cells multiply, move, and change. The fetus floats in amniotic fluid inside the amniotic sac. The fetus receives oxygen and nourishment from the mother's blood via the placenta, a disk-like structure that sticks to the inner lining of the uterus and connects to the fetus via the umbilical cord. The amniotic fluid and membrane cushion the fetus against bumps and jolts to the mother's body.
Pregnancy lasts an average of 280 days — about 9 months. When the baby is ready for birth, its head presses on the cervix, which begins to relax and widen to get ready for the baby to pass into and through the vagina. The mucus that has formed a plug in the cervix loosens, and with amniotic fluid, comes out through the vagina when the mother's water breaks.
When the contractions of labor begin, the walls of the uterus contract as they are stimulated by the pituitary hormone oxytocin. The contractions cause the cervix to widen and begin to open. After several hours of this widening, the cervix is dilated (opened) enough for the baby to come through. The baby is pushed out of the uterus, through the cervix, and along the birth canal. The baby's head usually comes first; the umbilical cord comes out with the baby and is cut after the baby is delivered.
The last stage of the birth process involves the delivery of the placenta, which at that point is called the afterbirth. After it has separated from the inner lining of the uterus, contractions of the uterus push it out, along with its membranes and fluids.
Some girls might experience reproductive system problems, such as:
A variety of menstrual problems can affect girls, including:
If you think your daughter may have symptoms of a problem with her reproductive system or if you have questions about her growth and development, talk to your doctor — many problems with the female reproductive system can be treated.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: March 2013
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|Adolescent Health Transition Project This is a health and transition resource for adolescents with special health care needs, chronic illnesses, and physical or developmental disabilities.|
|American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) This site offers information on numerous health issues. The women's health section includes readings on pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum care, breast health, menopause, contraception, and more.|
|GirlsHealth.gov GirlsHealth.gov, developed by the U.S. Office on Women's Health, offers girls between the ages of 10 and 16 information about growing up, food and fitness, and relationships.|
|WomensHealth.gov The Office on Women's Health (OWH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), offers reliable health and wellness information for women and girls.|
|Polycystic Ovary Syndrome In polycystic ovary syndrome, the ovaries produce higher than normal amounts of certain hormones, which can interfere with egg development and release. Learn how doctors diagnose and treat PCOS.|
|Female Athlete Triad Female athlete triad is a combination of three conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea (loss of a girl's period), and osteoporosis (a weakening of the bones).|
|All About Puberty Voice cracking? Clothes don't fit? Puberty can be a confusing time, but learning about it doesn't have to be. Read all about it in this article for kids.|
|Menstrual Problems For a girl, getting her first period is a sign of becoming a woman. But it can also be confusing, particularly if she encounters certain menstrual problems like irregular periods or PMS.|
|All About Menstruation Getting a period is a natural part of being a woman. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Everything You Wanted to Know About Puberty Voice cracking? Clothes don't fit? Puberty can be a confusing time, but learning about it doesn't have to be. Read all about it.|
|Endometriosis Read this article to learn all about endometriosis and how doctors help girls who have it.|
|Five Things Girls Want to Know About Periods Girls have lots of questions about periods. Here are five good ones - and the all-important answers!|
|When Will I Get My Period? It's normal to be a little worried or anxious about getting your period. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Talking to Your Daughter About Puberty Help your daughter prepare for the changes that puberty will bring before she takes her first steps toward adulthood.|
|Talking to Your Child About Menstruation Kids reaching puberty should already know what's going to happen to their bodies. Here are some tips for talking to your daughter about menstruation.|
|Male Reproductive System Understanding the male reproductive system, what it does, and problems that can affect it can help you better understand your son's reproductive health.|
|Male Reproductive System What makes up a guy's reproductive system and how does it develop? Can anything go wrong? Find the answers to these questions and more in this article.|
|A Week-by-Week Pregnancy Calendar Pregnancy is an exciting time. Our week-by-week illustrated pregnancy calendar is a detailed guide to all the changes taking place in your baby - and in you!|
|All About Menstruation Periods can be confusing. Get the facts in this article for teens.|
|Coping With Common Period Problems Many girls have to deal with PMS, cramps, or headaches around the time of their periods. These problems are usually nothing to worry about. Get the facts on which period problems are normal and which ones might indicate something's going on.|
|Female Reproductive System Why do girls get periods? What goes on when a woman gets pregnant? What can go wrong with the female reproductive system? Find the answers to these questions and more in this article for teens.|
|About Birth Control Before you consider having sex, you need to know how to protect yourself. Read this article to get the basics on birth control.|
|Ectopic Pregnancy In an ectopic pregnancy, a fertilized egg has implanted outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. If undiagnosed, as the pregnancy grows, it can burst the organ that contains it and endanger the mother's life.|
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