Menstruation and the First Period: What Girls Should Know

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“What are these, Mommy?” asked the 7-year-old girl, reaching into her mother’s vanity drawer and pulling out a box of tampons. Caught unprepared to talk about puberty and menstruation, her mother improvised. “Um…they’re windshield wiper cleaners, honey.”

Will you be more ready than that when it’s time to talk to your daughter about her first period? That time may come sooner than you think.

Although a girl’s first period usually occurs at about age 12, some girls experience their first period much earlier. And even before she gets her first period, your daughter will be noticing other changes in her body: Recent studies show that most girls start developing breast buds sometime between age 9 and 10.

When that happens, you’ll know that her first period may not be far off: The development of breast buds usually precedes a girls’ first period by about two years, while pubic and underarm hair usually begins to appear about six months before the onset of menstruation.

“A girl’s first period should actually be a milestone in a series of talks over many years about normal development -- physical changes and psychological changes,” says Karen Zager, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in New York City and co-author of The Inside Story on Teen Girls: Experts Answer Parents’ Questions. “All of that should start when they’re very young, in age-appropriate ways.”

Seven Tips for Talking to a Girl About Her First Period

1. Start talking about periods in general terms from an early age. “Put it in the context of natural functions, and it’s very easy for kids to absorb, says Zager.  “You can tell her, ‘You know, someday your body will grow up and look like Mama’s, and you’ll have breasts and hair in certain places. Your body will change in lots of ways as you get ready to be a grown-up woman.”

2. As your daughter gets older, get into specifics. You can talk with her more about what that menstruation means -- such as what her first period will be like and being able to get pregnant if she has sex.

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3. Answer questions with simple, factual information that is age appropriate. Don’t feel the need to elaborate or go into extensive explanations because you’re nervous. If your first-grader finds your box of tampons, you can simply say, “Mommy uses those every month when she gets her period,” without going into a two-hour discussion of the menstrual cycle, ovulation, and female anatomy.

4. Take time to understand what your daughter is really asking. Instead of assuming you know what your daughter’s asking, find out what she thinks the question is about. If she asks something about girls bleeding or has heard another girl talk about her first period, ask her, “What have you heard about it?” You might find out that she’s heard something strange or off-base that you’ll need to correct with good information. (And you’ll also buy time to figure out just how you want to answer.)

5. Use your own experience to spark discussion about hers. “It’s perfectly fine to say, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And somewhere on the planet there may be a kid who says, ‘Yes, I have several questions and here they are.’ But most won’t,” says Lynda Madaras, co-author of a series of popular books on health, childcare, and parenting. Instead, take a more casual approach: “You know, when I was your age, I was really worried about getting my first period because I thought it would hurt a lot. Are you worried about that?”

6. Know that “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Sometimes children ask questions that we aren’t prepared for. Madaras recalls the mother whose 5-year-old asked, “Who was on top the night I was conceived?” At a time like this, it’s fine to say, “That’s a good question. I’m going to think about it and get back to you.” (But do get back to her. Don’t pretend you forgot in the hope that she will too.)

7. Don’t just hand your daughter a book or video. You can use a book or video as a jumping-off point to discuss menstruation, but don’t just hand your daughter a book and assume your job is done. Watch it or read it with her, and talk about it with her afterward. (Madaras’s What’s Happening to My Body? books are good choices, as is her My Body, My Self, which has spaces for journal notes and Q&As tailored to parents talking to their daughters about menstruation and puberty.)

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What Does a Girl Want to Know About Her First Period?

As puberty draws near, a girl is likely to be excited at the prospect of leaving childhood behind and “becoming a woman,” but she’ll probably also have more specific thoughts, worries, and fears about menstruation and the way her body is beginning to change. Here are some of the types of questions may she be asking herself:

  • Will I get my first period at school? That’s a big fear for a lot of girls, says Madaras. “Strategize with your daughter about what she can do -- carrying something in her purse, going to the school nurse or, even as an emergency measure, putting toilet paper in her underpants,” she says. “But she’s probably most worried that she’s just going to gush blood, so you should reassure her that that doesn’t happen.”
  • I don’t have my period yet, but there’s this white stuff in my underpants. What is that? This is another big worry for many girls, who may imagine they have a disease or that they’ve injured themselves by masturbating. “Give them the physiological facts -- that vaginal discharge is just a way of keeping the vagina clean, and it’s perfectly normal,” Madaras says.
  • How do I use tampons? Sanitary pads are pretty self-explanatory, but tampons can be intimidating. You may want to suggest that your daughter wait until she’s a little more comfortable with her period before using tampons. Today’s pads are much more sports-friendly and easier to hide than the bulky ones of yesteryear. Some tips for when she starts trying tampons: Use a smaller size first to judge what is most comfortable for her body. Change tampons every four to eight hours. Be sure she washes her hands before and after insertion.
  • Am I normal? Whether a girl gets her first period early or late, or right at the “average” age, she will probably worry that there’s something wrong with her. “Emotional swings are part of adolescence, and we all figure that everybody else is developing normally and we’re not,” says Zager. “Reassure your daughter that she will eventually develop -- or that the other girls will catch up with her, if she’s developing early.”

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That fear -- that “I’m not normal!”--can also make the usual fluctuations of early menstruation seem like dire events.

“Be sure to let your daughter know that she might not get her period every month right away. Irregular periods are common during the first year or so,” says John Steever, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “Talk about the symptoms that may go along with her period, such as cramps, retaining water and weight fluctuation, mood swings, and headaches.”

No one loves menstrual cramps and other symptoms, but when we’re older, we usually know when they’re coming, and we have our tampons and over the counter pain relievers , so you’re not adding in the whole element of surprise and anxiety, says Zager.  “Young girls, when they first begin to menstruate, are usually anxious, so helping them be prepared makes these things easier to cope with.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 24, 2010

Sources

SOURCES:

Karen Zager, Ph.D., psychologist, New York, NY.

Lynda Madaras, sex and health educator and author, Pasadena, Calif.

John Steever, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Division of Adolescent Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, N.Y.

Herman-Giddens, ME, EJ Slora, RC Wasserman, CJ Bourdony, MV Bhapkar, GG Koch and CM Hasemeir. 1997. Secondary sexual characteristics and menses in young girls seen in office practice: a study from the pediatric research in office settings network. Pediatrics 99 (4): 505-512.

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