Talking to Your Child About Menstruation
Preparing for the First Period
The start of menstruation is a momentous event in a girl's life. Some girls greet those first drops of blood with joy or relief, while others feel bewildered and scared. Whatever the reaction, the arrival of the first period holds the same meaning for every girl: It's proof that she's becoming a woman.
On average, most girls start their periods when they're 12 or 13 years old (although some begin earlier or later). But if you wait until your daughter gets her period to talk to her about menstruation, that's too late.
So, how do you discuss menstruation and offer education, as well as guidance and support, before the big day even arrives? Or, what do you tell your son? (Boys have questions, too.) Before you can discuss menstruation, it's important to have a good understanding of how the process works.
In the early 1900s, girls generally reached menarche (the medical term for the first period or the beginning of menstruation) at age 14 or 15. For a variety of reasons, including better nutrition, girls now usually start to menstruate between the ages of 10 and 16. But menstruation isn't just about having a period. It's a sign that a girl is physically capable of becoming pregnant.
During the menstrual cycle, hormones are released from different parts of the body to help control and prepare the body for pregnancy. That preparation begins when the ovaries (two oval-shaped organs that lie to the upper right and left of the uterus, or womb) produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones trigger certain changes in the endometrium (the lining of the uterus). Then, other hormones from the pituitary gland stimulate the maturing and release of the egg, or ovum, from the ovary.
The release of the egg is called ovulation, and it occurs in the middle of the cycle — usually day 14 of a 28-day cycle, for example. From the ovary, the egg moves into one of the fallopian tubes (the two tubes that lead from the ovaries to the uterus).
If the egg is fertilized by sperm, the fertilized egg will take about 2 to 4 days to travel down the fallopian tube. It will then attach to the thick, blood-rich lining of the uterus. If it's not fertilized, the egg begins to fall apart, the estrogen and progesterone levels drop, and the uterine lining breaks down and is shed — this bleeding is what's known as a period.
A menstrual cycle lasts from the first day of one period to the first day of the next. The typical cycle of an adult female is 28 days, although some are as short as 22 days and others are as long as 45. Periods usually last about 5 days, although that can vary, too. During a period, a woman passes about 2-4 tablespoons (30-59 milliliters) of menstrual fluid.
For the first few years after menstruation begins, cycles are often irregular. They may be shorter (3 weeks) or longer (6 weeks), or a young woman may have only three or four periods a year. The absence of periods is called amenorrhea. A girl should see her doctor if she hasn't started menstruating by age 15, or 3 years after her first signs of puberty appeared.
So, how will you know when your daughter might start menstruating? You'll probably be able to see physical changes that signal she's getting close to starting. Breast development is usually the first sign that a girl has entered puberty. It's usually followed by the growth of some pubic hair.
About a year after breast development begins, most girls enter into a phase of rapid growth. They'll get taller and curvier, and their feet will grow. Then, about a year after the growth spurt begins and about 2 and a half years after breast development starts, the first period arrives.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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