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Where do babies come from?

When it comes to difficult questions children ask, this is the absolute classic. "Where do babies come from?" Whether it's because someone they know is pregnant, or they're just curious, many young children will ask where they, or babies in general come from. Tackling these questions can be daunting, and need to be handled very carefully.

The Grown-Up Answer

For the purposes of this post, we will assume that you're familiar with the practicalities of making a baby! Instead we will give you a quick refresher on the biological steps which begin a pregnancy.

Women are born with all the unfertilised eggs they will ever have; several million single celled eggs are stored in a woman's ovaries. Men on the other hand constantly produce new sperm cells. It takes between 64 & 72 days to produce each new sperm.

About every 28 days, an egg will be released from a woman's ovaries and will start to travel to her uterus. This is ovulation, and for the period of time between an egg being released and it reaching the uterus is when a woman is able to become pregnant. When a man ejaculates, several hundred million sperm are released into the woman's vagina. These sperm begin to make their way up towards the fallopian tube where the egg is waiting, swimming at about 20cm per hour.

The overwhelming majority of these sperm will not reach the egg. They will enter the wrong fallopian tube, get stuck along the way, or die before being able to get there. Anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred sperm will access the egg, which releases the hormone progesterone. This hormone causes the sperm to shed some of its protein and become more active. Upon contact with the outside of the egg, the head of the sperm releases enzymes to break through the hard shell. As soon as a single sperm penetrates the egg, the outer shell undergoes a transformation which prevents any further sperm breaking through. Conception has now occurred.

The Children's Answer

Before getting in to any answers, you need to establish exactly what question the child is asking. Remember the cautionary tale of the mother who answered her young son's question of "where did I come from?" in great detail. Only after she'd finished did he clarify that he was asking the name of the town they had recently moved from. Responding to the child's question with a question of your own like "what do you mean?" can help to clarify what the child wants to know.

It is also important that early years professionals remain acutely aware that they are not parents in this circumstance. Answering children's questions about sex and pregnancy is a sensitive subject, and one which most parents would expect to have control over. Unless you are absolutely confident that;

a) you are able to answer the child's question appropriately and;

b) their parent will be comfortable with what you will say;

you should not attempt to answer. Far better that you explain to the child that mummy/daddy will be able to answer their question when they get home. It is also sensible to try and have a quick conversation with the parent yourself, both to warn them, and to get some guidance about how they would like you to handle any subsequent, similar questions.

If you are going to answer a young child's question about where babies come from, bear these points in mind:

  • keep your answer limited to what the child has asked. If a child asks "where do babies come from?", explaining that they come from inside of women/mummies may well be enough of an answer. If the child wants to understand more, they will ask you.
  • use the correct, biological language as necessary. It can seem more age appropriate to use terms which a child is already familiar with. However, a child may become confused that a baby comes from a woman's "tummy" because they know that's the same place their food goes. Better to introduce a new, appropriate term such as "womb" or "uterus".
  • tell a story. Don't underestimate how bizarre an explanation can seem to a child hearing it for the first time. Support their understanding by using a story to link the new information with things they already know. You can also vary how detailed the story is, depending on the age and understanding of the child. For example, for a very young child asking about where babies come from you might say:
"The Mummy & Daddy make a baby in the Mummy's womb. The baby grows in there, and comes out when it's ready"

A slightly more detailed explanation for a preschool aged child might go something like this:

"A seed, called a sperm, from the man mixes with an egg from the woman inside the woman's womb. The sperm and the egg slowly grow into a baby, and after many months, the fully grown baby is born."
  • be confident and positive about the question. Whether you're choosing not to answer the question as a professional, or trying to offer some explanation to the child, make sure they feel pleased that they asked. It is so important that young children grow up into teenagers who feel comfortable and confident to ask all the questions they have at that stage.