What are periods?

Your child will go through lots of changes in puberty. One of the most significant milestones is her first period.

Periods are part of the menstrual cycle, which affects hormone levels in the ovaries and the uterus.

Here's what happens in a menstrual cycle:

  • The level of female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) rises. This 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.
  • 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 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 and respectful relationships, this can be a good time to start.

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.

If your child hasn't started her period by the time she turns 16, it's a good idea to talk 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.

Period cycles

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.

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 your daughter 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
  • how to use and dispose of pads and tampons
  • what to do if she gets her period away from home - for example, at school or camp
  • 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 with 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 with a woman, you might be able to ask her aunt, an older sister or a female friend to help.

Sanitary pads and tampons

Your daughter will need a supply of sanitary pads and tampons both at home and when she's out.

Before your daughter gets her first period, it's a good idea to show her:

  • what pads and tampons look like
  • how to use pads and tampons
  • how to dispose of pads and tampons.

When she's out, you might want to suggest she carries pads and tampons with her - for example, she could keep some in a toiletry purse in her school bag and sports bag.

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.

Pads or tampons?
It's probably easier for your daughter to start with pads before she tries tampons. Girls of any age can use tampons, but it can take some time and practice to get used to them.

When your child is first starting with tampons, it might help her to practise with mini-tampons between periods so she can get used to inserting and removing them. She could put a bit of lubricant or petroleum jelly on the tip of a tampon so it slides in more easily. Looking at diagrams of the slope and shape of her vagina can help too, as can using a mirror when she's practising.

For many girls, being comfortable with using tampons can be a big help in these busy and active years.

Keeping track of periods

It can be good for your child to keep track of her periods in an app, on a calendar or in a diary. This 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 whether your child's cycle is very irregular, so you'll know whether she should talk to a GP.

Period symptoms and pain

When your daughter's period is coming, she might have a range of physical symptoms, including sore breasts, pimples and greasy hair. She might also have a sore tummy.

Period pain is common. If your child gets a sore tummy, back or legs before or during her period, she could try:

  • taking pain medication
  • putting a hot water bottle on her tummy
  • walking or other light exercise
  • eating smaller meals more often (to reduce stomach swelling and soreness)
  • resting and relaxing, particularly with her legs elevated, or lying on one side with her knees bent
  • lightly massaging her lower stomach
  • having warm drinks like hot milk or herbal tea.
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 before and during periods

Many girls (and women) 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 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, like her GP.

Girls with additional needs and periods

Periods can be especially challenging for girls with additional needs and their parents. If your daughter has moderate to severe intellectual disability, 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 involved in your child's care, can recommend resources to use with your child, like books and visual aids. You could also speak to your child's school about support.

You might like to read more about preparing girls with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for periods and about preparing children with ASD for puberty.

Looking after yourself

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.