Menstruation should be treated as a normal body function.
Prepare girls by talking about pain, blood flow, age of onset and other questions they may have.
Pack a kit she can take with her wherever she goes, and make sure she knows how to use it.
The onset of a girl’s first period can be a time of many questions both for girls and for their parents. While tweens may be curious about what menstruation will be like, parents may be wondering about the best way to answer the many questions on the topic that will be coming their way. Elizabeth Snapinn, MD, an internal medicine and pediatrics primary care physician at Pacific Medical Centers in Lynnwood, Washington, gives parents a handy tip sheet about what — and what not — to do.
Treat a period like potty training
Parents should take the approach that menstruation is a normal bodily function similar to going to the bathroom. “Talk about it in a nonjudgmental way that shows you’re not embarrassed to talk about it,” Dr. Snapinn says.
Reassure your daughter it won’t hurt too much
Dr. Snapinn says that’s one of the most common concerns she hears from her young patients. While the bleeding itself won’t hurt, parents can mention that there may be cramps. Dr. Snapinn suggests saying that as the body is removing the blood it can cause some aching in the lower belly. “Tell her there are things she can do to ease the aches,” she says. “Some of those things include using a hot water bottle, being physically active or, if needed, medicine such as ibuprofen dosed for the child’s weight.”
Don’t assume your daughter knows everything
Health education classes at school may not cover everything you think they do. Dr. Snapinn had one 11-year-old patient start crying during a visit with her because she hadn’t heard anything about menstruation. You can take a cue from Dr. Snapinn, who tells female patients that their “bodies are getting ready to become an adult and that they are going through the steps of what they will need when they grow up and decide to have a baby.” Of course, it’s worth adding that just because a girl’s body is changing from being a kid to being a grownup does not mean that all of a sudden she is a grownup.
Your daughter’s period will come when she’s ready, even if it’s earlier or later than her friends
Another question Dr. Snapinn often hears is, “When will my period start?” While there’s no way to guarantee an exact age, parents can make a guesstimate. “Generally, it starts within two years of beginning breast development,” Dr. Snapinn says. “The average age is about 12, but it’s not unusual for periods to happen before age 10 these days. One way to get a sense of when a child’s period might start is to know when the mother started her period and infer that the daughter’s may begin around the same age.” If your daughter hasn’t had her period by the age of 15 or 16, check with her physician.
Don’t wait until a girl starts her period to show her how pads work
Remember how you should treat a period like going to the bathroom? Well, just as you taught a child how to use a toilet during potty training, you need to show your daughter how to use feminine protection during her cycle. “Demonstrate how to put a pad in underwear,” Dr. Snapinn says. “It will give her an understanding that this is something that is not just happening to her.” Plus, she’ll be able to take care of herself if her period starts at school or during an extracurricular activity where you aren’t around to help.
Use your child’s pediatrician as a resource
If you feel uncomfortable or you find that words fail you on a specific question, contact your child’s pediatrician for help talking about it. Dr. Snapinn also recommends visiting healthychildren.org, which is the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Teach your daughter how to track her period
Girls might worry about their period starting suddenly at school or during a sports event. Take some of the anxiety away by showing your daughter how to use a diary or an app to track her menstrual cycle. In the first year or so, periods can be erratic, but they can also be much lighter — so, even if the start of her period catches her unaware, it is generally more manageable. Even when a girl starts menstruating, a cycle is generally 28 days, and anything between 21 and 35 days from the start of one period to the start of the next is considered normal.
Tell her to always be prepared
That’s not to say that she shouldn’t always have something on hand, just in case. Dr. Snapinn recommends packing an emergency kit with pads and a change of underwear a girl can carry in a backpack or gym bag so she has it handy wherever she goes.
Explain how to go with the flow
It’s not unheard of for a girl to think her blood flow might be like water gushing from a faucet. Dr. Snapinn says parents can compare it to the clear vaginal discharge girls may experience a few days before their period starts. “It might feel like that, just a little heavier and a little wet,” she says.
Keep communication open
Dr. Snapinn says she knows people who grew up in families where menstruation was not discussed, and some of them didn’t tell their parents for years that they had started their period. “Be neutral and not judgmental when your daughter asks questions,” Dr. Snapinn says. She adds that single dads who may feel awkward broaching the subject should get the advice of trusted female relatives or family friends, or their daughter’s pediatrician.
Prepare your child for potential mood changes
“PMS is a real thing, it’s not just something people make bad jokes about,” Dr. Snapinn says. “In its more severe form it’s called PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is essentially depression that happens around a period.” If parents see any signs of depression, such as social withdrawal or a change in grades, they should contact their pediatrician. It’s good to talk about these issues in advance, Dr. Snapinn advises. “You can tell your daughter she might notice that she feels unusually cranky — or even that she feels bloated or her breasts hurt before her period—and that’s completely normal.”
If you have other questions about parenting, download the free Circle by Providence app, which offers provider-approved advice and resources on many child-rearing topics.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.