Most girls begin to menstruate when they're about 12, but periods are possible as early as age 8. That's why explaining menstruation early is so important. Menstruation, however, can be an awkward subject to talk about — especially with preteen girls, who seem to embarrass more easily than any other creatures on the planet.
So what's the best way to prepare your daughter for menstruation?
Talk early and often
The earlier you begin talking to your daughter about the changes she can expect in her body, the better. Don't plan a single tell-all discussion. Instead, talk about the various issues — from basic hygiene to fear of the unknown — in a series of conversations. If your daughter asks questions about menstruation, answer them openly and honestly. If she's not asking questions as she approaches the preteen years, it's up to you to start talking about menstruation.
How to start talking
To introduce the subject of menstruation, you might ask your daughter what she knows about puberty. Clarify any misinformation, ask if she has questions and explain the basics. Share your own experiences. Consider timing your conversations with the health lessons and sex education your daughter is receiving in school. If your daughter is resistant to discussing the subject, don't give up.
Remember, your daughter needs factual information about the menstrual cycle and all the other changes that puberty brings. If her friends are her only source of information, she might hear inaccurate information and take it for truth. Talking to her can help eliminate unfounded fears or anxiety, as well as influence the way she feels about her body. In addition, the conversations you have with your daughter about menstruation can lay the groundwork for future talks about dating and sexuality.
Practical advice preferred
The biology of menstruation is important, but most girls are more interested in practical information about periods. Your daughter might want to know when it's going to happen, what it's going to feel like and what she'll need to do when the time comes.
- What is menstruation? Menstruation means a girl's body is physically capable of becoming pregnant. Every month or so, one of the ovaries releases an egg. This is called ovulation. At the same time, hormonal changes prepare the uterus for pregnancy. If ovulation takes place and the egg isn't fertilized, the egg passes through the uterus and out of the body, and the lining of the uterus is shed through the vagina. This is a period.
- Does it hurt? Many girls have cramps, typically in the lower abdomen or back, when their periods begin. Other symptoms might include bloating, tender breasts, headaches, fatigue, mood swings or food cravings. Exercise, warm baths, a heating pad or an over-the-counter pain reliever can help ease any discomfort.
- When will it happen? No one can tell exactly when a girl will get her first period. Typically, however, girls begin menstruating about two to three years after their breasts begin to develop. Many girls experience a clear or white vaginal discharge several months before menstruation begins. A girl might also begin menstruation at about the same age as her mother or any older sisters did.
- What should I do? Explain how to use sanitary pads or tampons and the importance of changing them at least every three to four hours. Many girls are more comfortable starting with pads, but it's OK to use tampons right away. Remind your daughter that it might take some practice to get used to inserting tampons. Stock the bathroom with various types of sanitary products ahead of time. Encourage your daughter to experiment until she finds the product that works best for her.
- What if I'm at school? Encourage your daughter to carry a few pads or tampons in her backpack or purse — or keep a supply in her locker — just in case. Many school bathrooms have coin-operated dispensers for these products. The school nurse also might have supplies.
- Will everyone know that I have my period? Assure your daughter that pads and tampons aren't visible through clothing. No one needs to know that she has her period.
- What if blood leaks onto my pants? Offer your daughter practical suggestions for covering up stains until she's able to change clothes, such as tying a sweatshirt around her waist. You might also encourage your daughter to wear dark clothing when she has her period.
Your daughter might worry that she's not normal if she starts having periods before — or after — friends her age do, or if her periods aren't like those of her friends. Explain that menstruation varies from woman to woman. Your daughter's first period will likely be mild — with only a few drops of blood or spotting occurring. Her future periods might vary month to month, lasting for two days or up to a week. The amount of blood lost each month (menstrual flow) can vary, too, usually from 4 to 12 teaspoons (about 20 to 60 milliliters).
It's also common for girls to have irregular periods for the first year or two. The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days — counting from the first day of one period to the first day of the next period. While cycles in young teens can range from 21 to 45 days, they're typically longer for the first few years after menstruation begins. Teach your daughter how to track her periods on a calendar. Eventually she might be able to predict when her periods will begin.
Schedule a medical checkup for your daughter if:
- Her periods last more than seven days
- She has menstrual cramps that aren't relieved by over-the-counter medications
- She's bleeding between periods
- She's bleeding more heavily than usual or using more than one pad or tampon every one to two hours
- She's missing school or other activities because of painful or heavy periods
- She goes three months without a period after beginning menstruation or suspects she might be pregnant
- Her periods become irregular after having been regular
- She hasn't started menstruating by age 15 or within three years of the start of breast growth
- She gets a fever and feels sick after using a tampon
Your daughter's first period is a milestone. Try to help your daughter avoid feeling embarrassed or ashamed by planning something to celebrate. You might buy her a gift, take an outing together or share a special meal.
The changes associated with puberty can be a little scary. Reassure your daughter 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 she might have.