According to environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, Ph.D., we would do well to maintain ongoing conversations about fertility. That’s because, as it turns out, even experiences you have growing up can affect your reproductive health later on.
Specifically, your body goes through a few developmental periods that can have downstream effects as you age: “Sensitive periods are important—those are the periods when the body is rapidly dividing or growing,” she says on the mindbodygreen podcast. “Obviously prenatal is very important, and then soon after birth [there’s what’s called] the minipuberty.” Wait, what?
Here, Swan breaks down this developmental stage and and why it’s so important for reproductive health.
According to Swan, reproductive health really does start that young: She explains that the minipuberty “is thought to be very important for hormonal and reproductive development.”
We did some more digging: Apparently, minipuberty occurs between birth and six months of age for boys and two years of age for girls, and it marks the development of various characteristics: including the genital organs and fertility, body composition and growth, cognitive abilities related to speech, and potentially behavior—like perhaps emotional regulation in males.
A little Sex-Ed for you: Adolescent puberty happens when the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (or HPG) axis becomes activated, which causes an increase in sex steroid hormones (which causes changes in body shape, an increase in body hair, et al).
However, this activation actually occurs twice before that: once in utero and once in the first months of life. These first two activations do not bring about an increase in sex hormones, so they’re categorized more generally as “endocrine puberties.” They’re just as important for reproductive health, but you don’t necessarily see any changes to the body.
This minipuberty stage is important, because it may allow for the early observance of and medical intervention in reproductive or sexual development disorders, if needed. As one study recounts, it forms a “platform for future fertility,” as it essentially sets the groundwork for your sex organs to mature, and functions as a “window of opportunity” to evaluate the HPG axis—since that “window” is closed until you start puberty once again around ten years later. More research is needed on the specific ways minipuberty affects future fertility, but it sure is a neat concept, no?
What should you do about it?
As of now, specific exposures and interventions that affect minipuberty is unknown. “I personally have not studied the effect of childhood exposures [to chemicals], and few people have studied the effect of childhood exposures on child health,” notes Swan. But if she had to give marching orders, she would recommend teaching the young child good habits for reproductive health early-on. “Eat healthy foods, avoid [phthalates], put their shoes at the door, and so on and so forth,” she says. By doing so, “You’re teaching them to protect their overall health and hopefully their reproductive health as well.”