What adolescent girls need to know about their pelvic health

Talking to young, maturing girls about their pelvic health may not be a conversation every parent is comfortable having, but it's just as important as the “sex talk” and can lead to better health later in life.

“Very early in our culture we toss the pelvis to the side, [as] an icky subject that no one wants to talk about-- you’re basically ignoring it and what we know from research is that this ends up with tons of millions of girls with pelvic issues,” Missy Lavender, the founder of the Women's Health Foundation (WHF) and the co-author of "Below Your Belt: How to be Queen of Your Pelvic Region," told FoxNews.com.

The newly published book was written for girls ages 10 to 14 and for their parents or caregivers.

As a mother herself, Lavender set out to help girls better understand what’s “below their belt.” Instead of waiting for kids to have their basic reproductive health class in school, caretakers should open up the conversation before they develop bad habits, including addressing topics like what the pelvis is, what it does and how to keep it strong and healthy, she said.

In a study conducted by WHF and the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers found female students from three Chicago schools in eighth and ninth grade had very little knowledge of their bodies, pelvic function and pelvic conditions. Only 14 percent could identify the vagina and 70 percent thought it was normal to leak urine.

“Girls in our study were getting their periods but they didn’t really understand why,” Lavender said, adding questions arose about cervical fluid, such as “What is that in my underwear?” “How does that work during the month?” and “What’s that about?”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 90 percent of girls have their first period by age 13.75.

Some pelvic conditions that can affect adolescent girls include urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginal yeast infections, sexually transmitted infections, chronic constipation and menstrual-related conditions. Three percent of girls will develop a UTI by the time they’re 11 years old, the AAP reported.

Constipation issues were also widely misunderstood. In the WHF study, 57 percent of participants reported pushing and straining in relation to constipation; these behaviors can be associated with pelvic floor dysfunction later in life.

Tweens and teens may not feel comfortable asking a teacher or parent about their bathroom habits, but this needs to be addressed, Lavender said.

“In our study it was pretty interesting that these girls were 14 and 17 and were already symptomatic of pretty much everything below the belt, so over-active bladder (the “gotta go gotta go”), stress incontinence with a laugh, cough, sneeze and they leak (or giggle leaks we like to say), pelvic pain, [and] urinary tract infections— and a lot of it is tied to chronic constipation.”

To correct bad potty habits, Lavender suggests that parents talk to their girls about the most important bathroom behaviors to remember:

- Sit all the way down on the toilet. Hovering over the toilet can put stress and strain on pelvic floor muscles and weaken them over time.

- Wipe front to back. Wiping from back to front can cause bacteria to spread from the rectum into the vagina and urethra.

- Stay hydrated throughout the day with water and not sugary juices or sodas.

- Don’t ignore the signs of having to go to the bathroom. You should not “hold it all in” for 5 to 6 hours or longer. Young girls should be peeing every 3 to 4 hours while awake.

When it comes to talking to young girls about their body, fathers and male caregivers often feel an extra bout of anxiety, but the book includes tips for them, as well.

“As a father, raising the question means that there’s a channel that she can access if possible. So read [the book] with her potentially, leave it there and maybe revisit it with a comment, ‘Hey what did you think about that?’ She might roll her eyes and say, ‘Oh dad, whatever,’ but eventually I think little girls come around,” Lavender said.

For more information on pelvic health and Lavender’s book, visit Belowyourbelt.org.