By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teenaged girlfriends talking

The onset of periods is one of the biggest changes puberty brings. You can help your daughter cope with this change by being prepared and ready to talk her through it.

What are periods?

Your child will go through lots of changes in puberty. One of the most significant milestones is her first period. It’s a sign that the physical changes in her body have only a couple of years to go.

Periods are part of the menstrual cycle, which affects hormone levels in the ovaries and the uterus. The role of the menstrual cycle is to get the uterus ready for pregnancy. A menstrual cycle involves the following:

  • The level of female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) rises, which causes the release of an egg from one of the two ovaries. The egg then travels down a fallopian tube towards the uterus.
  • Extra blood and tissue build up in the lining of the uterus to prepare for the arrival and implantation of a fertilised egg.
  • Hormone levels fall if the egg isn’t fertilised, which leads to the lining of the uterus being shed through the vagina, taking the unfertilised egg with it.

This last step is what we call a ‘period’. Most of the blood and tissue comes out in the first couple of days, but some girls will continue to have bleeding for up to seven days. The amount of bleeding varies. 

Once your daughter starts having periods, she can get pregnant if she’s sexually active. If you haven’t already started talking with your child about puberty changes and general sexual health and wellbeing, this can be a good time to start. Girls and boys need to know that sexual intercourse can lead to pregnancy once a girl has started to have periods.

When periods start

Most girls will have their first period when they’re between 11 and 14½, but anywhere from 9-16 years is considered normal. If a girl has a major growth spurt and has grown some underarm hair, periods are likely to be just around the corner.

A good discussion starter might be asking older female relatives the age they had their first period. Talking together about the experience of managing periods is often the kind of support and information your daughter might find reassuring.

If your child hasn’t started her period by the time she turns 16, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with your child’s GP. There can be lots of reasons why periods haven’t started by then, and medical assessment can rule out any serious problems.

The time from the first day of one period to the first day of the next is sometimes called a ‘cycle’. Cycles are usually between 25 and 35 days. But girls might not get regular periods for the first few years, so their cycles might change from one period to the next.

Irregular cycles can be as short as 21 days, and as long as 45 days (or even longer). Girls who start their periods earlier will usually get a regular cycle more quickly than girls who start their periods later. Early on, a period can happen without the release of an egg in response to changes in hormone levels.

Irregular periods in the first three years are normal. But if your daughter’s periods are more than three months apart, you might like to talk with her GP. A GP can make sure there are no other health problems interfering with her cycle.

Talking to your daughter about periods

Talking about periods with your daughter can be a tricky conversation. But your daughter needs to know what’s going to happen in her body before she has her first period.

Some of the things she needs and might want to know include:

  • what a period is
  • how often periods come
  • how much blood will come out
  • how many days the bleeding is likely to last
  • whether periods hurt
  • how to use pads and tampons
  • what to do if she gets her period away from home – for example, at school or camp
  • how to get rid of used pads or tampons
  • whether she can swim when she has her period
  • whether she should use tampons or pads first.

If your child isn’t keen to talk to you about periods, there might be another trusted grown-up she feels comfortable with. If there’s no female parent in your home and you feel your child would prefer to speak to a woman, you might be able to ask her aunt, an older sister or a female friend to help.

Sanitary pads and tampons

Once she starts having periods, your daughter will need a handy supply of sanitary pads and tampons. It might be a good idea to show your daughter what pads and tampons look like before she has to use them, and also show her how a pad attaches to underpants.

Your daughter will need some pads and tampons ready for her first period. You might want to suggest she carries some with her when she’s out – for example, she could keep some in a special pencil case in her school bag, just in case.

Your daughter will probably need to use 3-6 sanitary pads or tampons a day. She might use fewer on light days. In the first couple of days and at night, longer, thicker pads or pads with side protectors (wings) are often helpful.

Your daughter will need to change her pad or tampon every 4-8 hours, depending on how heavy or light her bleeding is.

Facts about tampons
There are many myths about the use of tampons by young menstruating girls, so your daughter needs to know that both tampons and pads are safe options for her. Girls of any age can use tampons, but it can take some time and practice to get used to them. It’s probably easier to manage and less overwhelming for her to start with pads before she tries tampons.

When your child is first starting with tampons, the type that come with applicators can be easier to use. She can also try putting a bit of petroleum jelly on the end of a tampon to make it easier to insert. For many girls, especially those who swim or play sport regularly, being comfortable with using tampons can be a big help in these busy and active years.

Keeping track of periods

Encouraging your child to keep track of her periods on a calendar or in a diary can help her get to know her own menstrual cycle. If she has a fairly regular cycle, a calendar can help your child know when to expect her period, so she can prepare for things like sleepovers, school camps or swimming carnivals.

A calendar can also help show if your child’s cycle is very irregular so you’ll know if she should talk to a GP.

Period pain

If your child gets a sore stomach, back or legs before or during her period, she could try the following:

  • eating smaller meals more often (to reduce stomach swelling and soreness)
  • resting and relaxing, particularly with her legs elevated, or by lying on one side with her knees bent
  • putting a hot water bottle on her lower stomach
  • lightly massaging her lower stomach
  • drinking warm drinks
  • walking or other light exercise
  • taking period pain medication.

Symptoms before a period
As well as a sore stomach, there are other signs that a period is on its way. Girls can experience a range of physical symptoms leading up to a period, including sore breasts, pimples and greasy hair.

Excessively painful periods, or ‘dysmenorrhea’, are common – but still shouldn’t be considered normal. If your child has period pain that she can’t manage or that disrupts her everyday activities, she should see her GP. Hormone treatments that regulate periods or even turn them off for a while are safe and very effective.

Mood changes

Many girls (and women) will experience changes in mood just before or during the first few days of their period. These changes can include being a bit irritable or more sensitive, or feeling angry, anxious or even depressed.

This can be hard for your daughter, and the rest of the family, to cope with. Giving your daughter a bit more privacy and space around this time can make it easier for everyone, without making a big deal about it.

If your child’s mood changes are upsetting her or disrupting her everyday life, she might like to see a health professional, such as her GP.

Periods and children with special needs

Periods can be especially challenging for children with special needs and their parents. If your daughter has moderate to severe difficulty with intelligence or language development, she might not understand why she’s experiencing changes to her body and mood.

She still needs to know about periods and the menstrual cycle at a level she can understand. Your GP, or other health professionals experienced in the care of children with special needs, can recommend resources to use with your child, such as books and visual aids. You could also speak to your child’s school and get the support of teacher aides.

There are many books available for parents of girls with special needs. Here are two that you might find useful:

  • Angelo, F., Pritchard, H., & Stewart, R. (2004). Special girls’ business. North Balwyn: Special Girls Business.
  • Stewart, R., Anderson, H., & Angelo, F. (2009). Puberty and special girls. North Balwyn: Special Girls Business.

Video Preparing for periods

In this short video, parents of girls with ASD talk about preparing their daughters for periods. They say it’s important to talk about periods before they happen, and you might need to explain it several times. Some say their daughters experienced confusion and mood swings. You can get books on periods, and an open relationship with a peer or an older sister might also help.

If you’re feeling anxious or even a bit sad about your daughter starting her periods, you’re not alone. It’s a big development. Sharing stories and strategies with parents or caregivers in similar situations, either in person or online, can help. You might like to connect with other mums and dads in our forum for parents of pre-teens or our forum for parents of early teens.