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Having a first menstrual cycle can be a confusing, upsetting — even embarrassing — experience for a preteen. However, being prepared in advance of that first period can eliminate some of the accompanying distress and set an adolescent up to confidently manage the monthly occurrence. As a parent, you can play a key role by starting an important conversation.
“The median age of the start of menstruation in the U.S. is typically between 12 and 13 years of age,” says Dr. Sara Junya, a board-certified OBGYN with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “It’s important for parents to encourage the conversation about menstruation starting around age 10 or 11 to prepare them for the bodily changes they can expect.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it is important to emphasize in these discussions that menstruation — or having a period — is a natural and normal occurrence. Adolescents should understand that having a menstrual cycle is controlled by hormones and prepares the body for a potential pregnancy each month.
If a pregnancy isn’t occurring that month, the body doesn’t need the thick lining of the uterus made of blood and tissue that it had created to support a potential pregnancy. So, the tissue breaks down and is released with the blood through the vagina.
Dr. Junya also recommends you share the following about menstruation:
This cycle usually occurs every 21 to 45 days.
Bleeding will typically last no more than 7 days each cycle.
Their cycle may be irregular in the first months of menstruation.
Each period may vary in flow as well as in color, from red to a dark brown.
Some people experience cramping or pain before or during their period.
What’s more, the conversation about menstruation and related products should not only be held with young females, but also with preteens that identify as nonbinary or transgender, as they may also have a menstrual cycle.
“Discussion of menstruation as a function of a healthy body is vital, regardless of gender identity,” Dr. Junya says. “I encourage an open conversation when it comes to the menstrual cycle so that your young teenager feels comfortable coming to you with any questions or clarifications.”
Managing their monthly cycle
Once you’ve had this important talk, you can then help your child prepare to manage their menstruation with the help of mobile apps to chart their individual cycle on a smartphone or other digital device and by having a variety of menstrual products on hand, including:
Menstrual pads of different sizes and absorbencies
Tampons of different sizes — those with an applicator are typically easier for first-time use
Understanding that the insertion of some products, especially tampons, can be tricky, Dr. Junya suggests turning to the internet for helpful information and talking your young teen through the first insertion. “Try searching for diagrams to provide a visual aid, using slim tampons with applicators, adding a small amount of lubricant on the tip of the applicator to assist with smoother insertion and providing a hand-held mirror,” she says.
She also recommends encouraging your preteen or teen to try a variety of positions, including sitting, standing with one leg up or lying down. Deep breathing techniques to help relax the pelvic muscles can also allow for more comfortable tampon insertion.
Additionally, emphasizing good hand hygiene prior to tampon placement, as well as making sure your teen understands the importance of removing tampons at the appropriate intervals is crucial. Over-the-counter pain relief medications, such as those that contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help with any menstruation-related cramping and discomfort.
When their care provider can help
If you are struggling to discuss menstruation with your child or would like support in educating them about reproductive health, Dr. Junya suggests introducing your young teen to a health care provider — perhaps their pediatrician or family medicine doctor. You can discuss the topics all together or offer your child the opportunity to speak with them in private.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends this first visit, which typically does not include an exam and is mostly to encourage a conversation about reproductive health, occurs between the ages of 13 and 15. A relationship with a provider can also help in the event questions or concerns arise once their periods begin.
“Talk with your child’s doctor if there is no menstrual cycle by age 15 or if there is a three-month gap between cycles,” she says. “If their menstrual flow requires changing menstrual products every 1 to 2 hours, lasts longer than 7 days at a time, or if menstruation is starting to affect your young teenager’s ability to attend school, events or perform their normal activities due to pain or heavy bleeding, it also may be time to seek care.”
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