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 signs and symptoms might include bloating, tender breasts, headaches and fatigue. Exercise, warm baths, a heating pad or an over-the-counter pain reliever can help ease 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.
  • What should I do? Explain how to use sanitary pads or tampons and the importance of changing them at least every four to eight 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.

Everyone's different

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.

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 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

Be positive

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 her questions.

Aug. 30, 2014 See more In-depth