What are periods?
Your child will go through many changes in puberty. One of the most significant milestones is your child's first period.
Here’s what happens in a menstrual cycle:
- The hormone oestrogen is produced in the ovaries in cysts or sacs called follicles. The oestrogen stimulates the follicles to produce eggs. Usually only one egg matures and is released. When the egg is released, the ovary produces a second hormone, called progesterone.
- The egg moves from the ovary to the fallopian tube and travels towards the uterus.
- In response to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, the uterus makes a lining to prepare for the arrival and implantation of a fertilised egg.
- If the egg isn’t fertilised, hormone levels fall. This leads to the lining of the uterus being shed through the vagina. The lining is blood and other tissue.
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 people have bleeding for up to seven days. The amount of bleeding varies.
When do periods start?
Most young people will have their first periods when they’re between 11 and 14½, but anywhere from 9-16 years is considered normal.
Periods are likely to start soon if your child has:
- had a major growth spurt
- grown some underarm and pubic hair
- developed breasts.
If your child hasn’t started their period by the time they turn 16, it’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP. There can be many reasons why periods haven’t started by then, and the GP can help to 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 periods might not be regular for the first few years, so 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). Young people who start their periods earlier will usually get a regular cycle more quickly than those who start their periods later.
Irregular periods in the first three years are completely normal. But if your child’s periods are more than six months apart, you might like to talk with a GP. A GP can make sure there are no other health problems interfering with your child’s cycle.
Talking about periods
Talking about periods can be a tricky conversation. But your child needs to know what’s going to happen in their body before their first period.
Some of the things your child needs and might want to know include:
- what a period is and how often periods come
- how much blood will come out and how many days the bleeding is likely to last
- whether periods hurt
- what they should use for their periods – pads, period-proof underpants, tampons or a menstrual cup
- how to use and dispose of pads and tampons, or how to use period-proof underpants or a menstrual cup
- what to do if they get their period away from home – for example, at school or camp
- whether they can swim during a period
If your child isn’t keen to talk with you about periods, there might be another trusted grown-up they feel comfortable with. If there’s no female parent in your home and you feel your child would prefer to speak with a woman, you might be able to ask their aunt, an older sister or a female friend to help.
Practical preparation for periods
Your child will need a supply of sanitary pads, period-proof underpants, tampons and/or a menstrual cup.
Before your child gets their first period, it’s a good idea to show your child:
- what pads, period-proof underpants, tampons and cups look like
- how to use pads, period-proof underpants, tampons and cups
- how to dispose of pads and tampons, or rinse period-proof underpants
- how to clean a menstrual cup.
You might want to suggest your child carries pads, underpants, tampons or a cup. For example, they could keep some in a small bag in their school bag and sports bag.
Pads, underpants, tampons or a menstrual cup?
It’s probably easier for your child to start with pads or period-proof underpants before they try tampons or a menstrual cup.
Your child can use tampons and cups at any age, but it can take some time and practice to get used to them.
When your child is first starting with tampons or a menstrual cup, it might help to practise between periods, to get used to inserting and removing them. For tampons it can help to put a bit of lubricant or petroleum jelly on the tip of a tampon so it slides in more easily, or use water as a lubricant for a menstrual cup. Looking at diagrams of the slope and shape of the vagina can also help, as can using a mirror while practising.
Being comfortable with using tampons or a menstrual cup can be a big help in these busy and active years.
How many pads, tampons, period-proof underpants or cups?
Your child will probably need to use 3-6 sanitary pads or tampons a day, although it might be fewer on lighter days. In the first couple of days and at night, longer, thicker pads or pads with wings can be good.
Your child will need to change their pad or tampon every 4-8 hours, depending on how heavy or light the bleeding is.
Your child will need to use 1-2 pairs of period-proof underpants each day, depending on how heavy their bleeding is and how absorbent the pants are. Period-proof underpants need to be washed and dried between uses, so your child might need several pairs to get through their period.
Your child will need 1-2 menstrual cups. Cups can be worn for up to 12 hours but might need to be emptied and washed more often, depending on how heavy bleeding is. They need rinsing out between uses.
Keeping track of periods
It’s good for your child to keep track of their periods with an app, calendar or diary. If your child’s periods are fairly regular, an app or calendar can help your child know when their period is likely to come. This way your child can prepare for things like sleepovers, school camps or swimming carnivals.
Period symptoms and pain
When your child’s period is coming, they might have a range of physical symptoms, including sore breasts, pimples and greasy hair. Your child might also have a sore tummy, feel sick or have diarrhoea.
Period pain and these associated symptoms are common. If your child gets a sore tummy, back or legs before or during their period, your child could try:
- taking pain medication
- putting a hot water bottle on their lower stomach
- walking or other light exercise
- eating smaller meals more often (to reduce stomach swelling and soreness)
- resting and relaxing, particularly with their legs elevated, or lying on one side with knees bent
- lightly massaging the lower stomach
- having warm drinks like hot milk or herbal tea.
Very painful periods are common, as are symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. But if your child has period pain that disrupts everyday activities, they should see their GP. Hormone treatments that regulate periods or even turn them off for a while are safe and very effective.
Mood changes before and during periods
Many people will experience mood changes just before or during the first few days of their periods. These changes can include being a bit irritable or more sensitive, or feeling angry, anxious or even depressed.
This can be hard for your child and the rest of the family to cope with. Giving your child 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 or disrupting their everyday life, they might like to see a health professional, like the GP.
Periods and additional needs
Periods can be especially challenging for young people with additional needs and their parents. If your child has moderate to severe intellectual disability, they might not understand why they’re experiencing changes to their body and mood.
Your child still needs to know about periods and the menstrual cycle at a level they can understand. Your GP, or other health professionals involved in your child’s care, can recommend resources you can use with your child, like books and visual aids. You could also speak to your child’s school about support.
Looking after yourself
If you’re feeling anxious or even a bit sad about your child starting their 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.