Preparing a Girl for Her First Period
Introducing our children to change and new experiences is a natural function of parenting. It's the ‘how' and ‘when' that can trip us up.
At age 8, my daughter came home from baseball practice and asked, "How long does it take to bleed to death?" She said her friend Ruthie began bleeding down her legs on second base.
I stammered out reassurance that Ruthie would be all right, that the bleeding was normal for growing-up girls, and that Ruthie might stay home from practice for a day.
"You mean she's NOT dying?"
"Right. Her body is growing up, and will bleed a little bit every month now. But her mom will show her how to keep clean. It can be messy, but it's not scary."
"YUCK! I'm NEVER going to do that," she said, pounding her fist into her baseball mitt. "Am I?"
Preparing our daughters for transition to womanhood means preparing ourselves by learning basic information.
Female puberty marches along predictably in three stages: breast development, pubic hair growth and then menstruation.
Recent studies indicate that puberty begins earlier now in American girls than in previous decades, and takes longer to complete. The possible reasons under investigation include a connection to rising obesity rates and the presence of chemicals in food and the environment.
Although breast development is beginning earlier, the beginning of menses has remained fairly steady over the past three decades. The average age for beginning menses is about 12.5 years, according to a study published in 1997 in the journal Pediatrics. It can begin as early as age 8 or as late as age 16. A girl can expect her first period after she begins developing curves and pubic hair, experiences a growth spurt and weighs about 100 pounds.
Menstruation is the discharge of blood and tissue from the lining of the uterus each month for about five days. It signals a female's reproductive maturity. A typical menstrual cycle lasts 28 to 30 days, but can vary from 22 to 35 days.
A girl's first period is called "menarche" (men-ARK-ee). The first period is likely to be light and last up to seven days. Sometimes girls feel mild to severe abdominal cramps for as briefly as an hour or as long as the whole length of the period. Every girl is different! It may take a year for a girl's menstrual period to settle into a predictable pattern.
Prepare Your Daughter
Classes, books, and "first period kits" are available to help parents explain the facts of menarche at the level of detail that is appropriate to the age of their girls.
Health educators agree that the most important step is to establish trusting, two-way communication with your daughter. Several hospitals in the Puget Sound area offer workshops to help create a clear channel for dialogue.
One such workshop, "Growing up Female," is facilitated by Sara Rigel at Swedish Medical Center. The one-hour class welcomes girls ages 9 to 12 and the adults they love and trust to learn how to discuss the pre-teen's changes. "This class is not just for moms and daughters – sometimes we see four parents with one daughter or a girl brings an older sibling or aunt," says Rigel.
"Our primary mission is to promote communication in the family," she said. The class relays facts to alleviate fears of the unknown and to equip attendees with correct information about puberty and sexuality. "But foremost they leave with a model for developing communication skills and providing opportunities for questions."
"Our main messages are that this transition is normal, talking about it is normal, and talking about it in the family is normal," continues Rigel. She says the class affirms to the adults that other parents are dealing with the same issues and to the girls that all other girls go through the same changes. No one is alone.
‘The overall objective is that everybody in the class should be able to identify two good times [of day] to talk to each other." One family figured out the time and place was in the car while they were doing errands or commuting.
The Seattle School District helps parents prepare their children via "FLASH," "Family Life and Sexual Health" curriculum. District Health Education Specialist Helen Walsh says the program begins in fifth grade classrooms with students learning about themselves and their relationships with others, then progresses into discussion about puberty.
As resources permit, the school district adds the home-life dimension to FLASH with an annual after-hours evening called "Family Night." Each fifth-grader brings a trusted adult to school. If a family member is not available, one of the school staff fills in with the student.
"This was designed to celebrate the changes that are happening in the students – the ways that puberty is affecting them physically, emotionally and socially. And it is to help develop ways for students to continue these conversations at home," says Walsh. "For many, this is their last year in an elementary school, and moving into middle school is part of their larger transition."
The 90-minute workshop splits into two simultaneous sessions – one for boy/adult pairs, and the other for girl/adult pairs. Translators fluent in seven languages are available to help where they are needed to facilitate discussion.
"The family knows that FLASH information is underway in the classroom, but a lot of times the families don't know when or how to start the conversation (about puberty) with their students," says Walsh. "Here they learn how to talk about these changes and stay in communication when things – life – seem confusing, exciting, overwhelming. Parents have a lot of feelings about their children growing up, too, and want to express that to their children. It's a two-way street."
At the top of your shopping list write down sanitary pads and tampons. At least show your daughter what tampons look like and how they work, even if you don't recommend that she use them. Buy a small calendar and show her how to record her periods.
Ask your pediatrician about analgesics to relieve the pain of menstrual cramps and headache. Buy a small heating pad or hot water bottle for your daughter's tummy.
Your daughter will feel more secure about menarche if she knows what to do when it happens.
• Stock up with the supplies she will need and show her how to use them. Be sure she knows where to find them. Consider ordering a "first period kit."
• Have a "rehearsal." Begin with washing hands, put a pad in place according to the printed instructions in the pad box, dispose of a used pad appropriately wrapped and end with washing hands.
• At a store or her school, show your daughter how to purchase a pad from a restroom machine.
• Talk through the "what ifs" and problem-solve together. What if her period starts at school? At summer camp? Who can she turn to for help?
• Speak from your own experience. It will help her to know you've been through this, too.
• Buy books about puberty and menstruation that are suited to her age and need for detail. You read them first!
• Plan how the two of you will celebrate The Big Day. Pedicures? A special dinner out? A box of yummy chocolates?
Local entrepreneurs Kathy Pickus and her sister, Teri Goodwin, created a tidy little gift pack for a girl's first period. The Dot Girl[tm] First Period Kit is a small, zippered case containing sample sanitary pads, tampons, hand wipes, a calendar, an informational booklet and a heating gel pad.
"We have more customers asking us why we don't include chocolate!" says Pickus, laughing. "The answer is that we couldn't fit anything more into the case." The kit is available only through the Dot Girl Web site, which features "first period stories" from girls. Pickus says that when she and her sister began promoting their product, women volunteered their menarche memories. This led the sisters to create a venue where girls can see that they are not alone and can match notes with others' experiences.
"Every girl and woman goes through it," said Pickus. "What's most surprising to us is that girls in this day and age are still surprised when it happens to them."
Tulalip resident Suzanne Pate has paid the rent for 20 years by writing for public and private sector health agencies, university publications and newspapers.
First Period Kits
- www.manymoonsalternatives.com – eco-friendly feminine hygiene products
- www.dotgirlproducts.com – zippered kit full of first period essentials
- www.birthwithsol.com – first period kit with reusable, natural cotton pads
- www.mypetiteamie.com – first cycle kit of personal care products
Growing Up: It's a Girl Thing, by Mavis Jukes
The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, by Valorie Schaefer
Ready, Set, Grow!: A What's Happening to My Body? Book for Younger Girls, by Lynda Madaras
The Period Book, Updated Edition: Everything You Don't Want to Ask (But Need to Know), by Karen Gravell
- "Pearls of Wisdom" – Evergreen Healthcare, Kirkland – www.evergreenhealthcare.org; 425-899-1000.
- "Growing Up Female" – Swedish Medical Center – www.swedish.org; 206-386-6000.
- "For Girls Only: A Heart-to-Heart Talk on Growing Up" – Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center – www.seattlechildrens.org; 206-789-2306.