Menstruation typically begins at about age 12, but periods are possible as early as age 8. That's why it's important to discuss this topic early. Menstruation, however, can be an awkward subject to explain. So what's the best way to prepare your child?
Talk early and often
The earlier you begin talking to your child about the changes to expect during puberty, the better. Don't plan a single tell-all discussion. Instead, plan on a series of conversations. If your child asks questions about menstruation, answer them openly and honestly. If your child isn't asking questions, it's up to you to start talking about menstruation.
You might start by asking what your child knows about puberty. Clarify any misinformation, ask if your child has questions, and explain the basics. Share your experiences. Follow up on any health lessons and sex education your child is receiving in school. If your child is resistant to talking, don't give up.
Your child needs to know the facts about the menstrual cycle and all the changes that puberty brings. Friends might provide inaccurate information. Talking to your child can help eliminate unfounded fears or anxiety, as well as positively influence your child's body image. Also, the conversations you have with your child about menstruation can lay the groundwork for future talks about dating and sexuality.
Practical advice preferred
The biology of menstruation is important, but most children are more interested in practical information. Your child might want to know when it's going to happen, what it's going to feel like and what to do when the time comes.
- What is menstruation? Menstruation means the body is physically capable of becoming pregnant. In the first half of the menstrual cycle, levels of the hormone estrogen rise, making the lining of the uterus thicken. This lining will nourish a fertilized egg (embryo) if pregnancy occurs. As the lining grows, an egg in one of the ovaries starts to mature. At about day 14 of an average 28-day cycle, the egg leaves the ovary (ovulation). The egg travels through one of the fallopian tubes to the uterus. Pregnancy occurs if the egg is fertilized by a sperm cell and attaches to the uterine wall. If the egg isn't fertilized it breaks apart, hormone levels drop and the thickened lining of the uterus is shed through the vagina. This is a period.
- When will it happen? No one can tell exactly when a first period will occur. Typically, however, menstruation begins about two years after breasts begin to develop.
- How long does it last? The first few periods will likely be light — with only a few spots of blood occurring. Most periods last from three to five days, but anywhere from two to seven days is normal.
- Does it hurt? Common symptoms include cramps in the lower abdomen or back or breast tenderness just before and during periods. Headaches, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea also are possible. Exercise, warm baths, a heating pad or an over-the-counter pain reliever can help ease discomfort.
- What should I do? Explain how to use sanitary pads, tampons and menstrual cups and the importance of changing them regularly — every four to eight hours for pads and tampons and every eight to 12 hours for menstrual cups. Stock the bathroom with various types of sanitary products ahead of time. Encourage your child to experiment to find the product that works best.
- Will everyone know that I have my period? Explain that pads, tampons and menstrual cups aren't visible through clothing. Encourage your child to carry supplies in a backpack, purse or locker — just in case.
Remind your child not to worry about when friends begin to menstruate — or if their periods seem different. Explain that menstruation, including cycle length and flow, varies from person to person and sometimes month to month.
It's also common for teens to have irregular periods. It might take six years or more after your period starts for your cycle to become regular. The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days — counting from the first day of one period to the first day of the next period. Although cycles in young teens can range from 21 to 45 days, longer cycles are more common for the first few years after menstruation begins.
Teach your child how to track periods on a calendar or by using a smartphone app. Eventually your child might be able to predict when periods will begin. Keeping track of periods can also help your child and your child's doctor identify any possible menstrual disorders or other health problems.
Schedule a medical checkup if your child:
- Hasn't started menstruating by age 15 or within three years of the start of breast growth — or breasts haven't started to grow by age 13
- Goes three months without a period after beginning menstruation or suspects pregnancy
- Has periods that occur more frequently than every 21 days or less frequently than every 45 days
- Has periods that become irregular after having been regular
- Has periods that last more than seven days
- Has severe pain during periods
- Is bleeding between periods
- Is bleeding more heavily than usual or using more than one pad or tampon every one to two hours
- Suddenly gets a fever and feels sick after using a tampon
The changes associated with puberty can be a little scary. Reassure your child that it's normal to feel apprehensive about menstruating, but it's nothing to be too worried about — and you're there to answer any questions.