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Your First Period: How to Prepare

When will I get my first period? What are the signs? How will I know? Am I the right age? These questions are important, and the answers will help you prepare for menstruation. In this article, you’ll learn why periods happen in the first place, how to prepare for your first menstruation, and how to talk to your parents about it.

Image depicting preparation for your first period

Our bodies change as we make the transition from childhood to adolescence, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways. This transition is called puberty, a challenging time for everyone in one way or another. Our bodies change, our thinking changes, and our relationships change. As we move toward an adult version of ourselves, our changing bodies and emotions can be difficult to understand and accept.

For girls, an important milestone in this transition is the first menstrual cycle, or menarche. This can feel like an exciting step towards womanhood, but it can also be confusing and frightening.


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Period Tracker & Calendar

You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now:
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now:

While this is something all human females experience, your genetics, diet and lifestyle, birth control choices, pregnancies, and other reproductive events will influence your unique menstruation story.

What is the menstrual cycle?

The menstrual cycle is a series of hormonal changes that women of reproductive age experience every month (or thereabouts). It starts in our teens and ends with menopause, when the last cycle is over. This is an average of 450 cycles, or about 35 years of menstruation.

When does the menstrual cycle start?

Exactly when you get your first period is influenced by your genetics and your environment, especially by diet and nutrition. These days it typically happens around age 12 or 13 in Western countries, but any time between 9 and 14 is considered “normal”.

Three hundred years ago in Europe it was more common for girls to get their first period between 14 and 17. Over time it has gotten earlier and earlier. One theory is that better nutrition has led to earlier physical development.

What is it for?

The central purpose of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the uterus to receive a fertilized egg and provide the nutrients the tiny clump of cells needs to develop until the placenta is ready to take over.

The uterine lining, or endometrium, develops spontaneously each month. If you don’t get pregnant, that endometrial lining will leave the body with fresh and clotted blood as menstrual flow. It’s “like deep cleaning your spare room every month for a guest who might not arrive”.

In most other mammals, the endometrium starts to thicken when they get pregnant, so they don’t have to menstruate. But in humans, most other primates like monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees, and a few bats and mice, the endometrium thickens every cycle. If it isn’t being used by a tiny embryo, out it comes.

According to the “choosy uterus” theory, this system makes it easier for the mother’s body to expel an egg with a genetic abnormality—one that could never develop properly. And in primates, this can be up to 70% of the 300 – 400 000 eggs you have at puberty.

Graphic depicting the menstrual cycle duration and variability, including the length of bleeding and potential irregularities in the first months or years.


What is it like?

A full cycle can last anywhere from 25 to 38 days, but the bleeding part only lasts 3 to 7 days. It can take a while for your body to get used to the process and develop a stable routine. For the first months, and sometimes even years, your period will likely be irregular in length and flow.

We usually divide the menstrual cycle into four phases, starting with the menstrual period. Then comes the follicular phase, when the next little batch of eggs is getting ready for action; followed by ovulation, when usually just one of those eggs is released into the uterus for potential fertilization; and, finally, the luteal phase, when the body recalibrates so it can start all over again. Each phase is characterised by hormonal changes that can affect your mood, energy levels, sleep, and more.

Although it can seem like a lot more, you only lose between 15 to 90 ml (about 1 to 6 tablespoons) of blood over all the days of your period. The heaviest flow days are usually the first two or three, then the flow tends to get lighter, and you may only be spotting the last day or so.

What are the signs that your first period is coming?

No one has figured out a way to predict exactly when your first period will arrive, but the changes in your body will let you know when you’re getting close.

You’ll get your first period when the other processes of puberty have taken place: your body has grown big enough to trigger changes in your brain and endocrine system, your pituitary glands start producing more oestrogen, which in turn stimulates the development of your secondary sexual characteristics—the physical aspects of our bodies that make us look like males or females.

Genetics

Daughters often experience menarche around the same time their biological mothers did. Ask your mom if she remembers how old she was when her first period came.

Breasts

The first outward sign of puberty in girls is breast development. This happens 2 – 3 years before menarche. The nipples become more sensitive and sometimes feel sore, and you may develop small, raised bumps in the areola. These are sebaceous glands that help keep your nipples healthy and moisturised.

Pubes

One day you will notice hair growing in your armpits and pubic area. It will probably be soft and sparse at first but will become coarser over time. This usually means that you can expect your menarche in a year or two.

Zits

The hormone cocktail puberty serves up can put sweat and sebum production into overdrive for a while. Sebum is a waxy, oily substance your body needs to moisturize and protect the skin and scalp, but too much can clog your pores, cause acne, and make your skin and hair feel oilier. Your sweat glands also start working harder, so you will probably feel like showering more often and may develop an interest in deodorants.

Hips

Along with bigger breasts, your hips and thighs fill out, and your abdomen softens and stretches as your uterus and ovaries develop in preparation for their reproductive potential.

Drips

The vagina is a beautiful, self-cleaning part of your body. As your menarche approaches, you may find that your underwear feels a little wet sometimes, but not from pee. What is going on?

Vaginal discharge is one of the main signals that your first period will probably arrive within the year. Vaginal discharge is clear or whitish fluid that you suddenly start noticing in your underwear. This is normal, healthy, and important.

A healthy vagina secretes fluid and mucus from the cervix and small glands in the vaginal walls that clean, lubricate, and protect. This fluid is also slightly acidic and supports vaginal microflora, “good” bacteria and microorganisms that protect your vagina and reproductive organs from infections. The acidic fluid can sometimes bleach your underwear or leave yellowish stains. All of this is completely normal.

Illustration depicting preparedness for menstruation onset.


Being prepared once it starts

Once you start menstruating, you’ll have to get used to dealing with the flow every month. It’s very common to be surprised that your period has started again (and to not have any period products with you when it happens).

After a while, you’ll start to notice the signs that you’re in the luteal phase of your cycle and your period will be showing up again soon. Everyone is a little different, but anywhere from two weeks to a few days before their next period starts, many people experience:

  • feeling more tired than usual
  • cramping in the lower abdomen
  • acne
  • mood swings
  • lower back pain
  • headaches
  • spotting
  • bloating or constipation

If you experience these symptoms, there are a few ways to prepare:

  • Keep period hygiene products with you. Whether you’re going to school or staying at home, it’s good to have an emergency stash of products.
  • Talk to a person you trust to help you feel more comfortable about your body and know that you can safely ask for help and get prepared.
  • Find ways to manage pain that work for you. Periods can cause cramping. To prevent cramps from coming out of nowhere, talk to a trusted adult or your doctor about having an emergency pack of over-the-counter painkillers. Once the period starts you can also manage the pain with hot water bottles or compresses.
  • Track your symptoms. A period tracker isn’t only for those who have already had their first period. You can use a period tracker like WomanLog to track your symptoms and notice patterns, which will help you prepare for the big day.

Managing Menstrual Hygiene

Periods can be messy, but it won’t take you long to figure out how to prepare. Good hygiene is especially important when you’re bleeding. Your reproductive organs become more susceptible to infections, and when blood leaves the body, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.

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To avoid infections and strong odours, choose the menstrual products you feel most comfortable with and change them regularly. How often will depend on the products you use.

There are many options:

Disposable pads

Disposable pads come in different sizes and absorption capacities. Take it from the wrapper, pull off the protective tape, and press the sticky part into your underwear. Most disposable pads have wings that wrap around the sides of your underwear. This helps keep the pad in place and keeps leaking to a minimum, especially at nighttime. Change disposable pads every 4–6 hours, or as needed.

Reusable pads

These work more or less the same way, but instead of throwing them out, you can wash them by hand or toss them in the washing machine and wear them again.

Tampons

Tampons are cylindrical cotton plugs you insert into your vagina to absorb period blood. Like pads, they come in different sizes with different absorption capacities. Just unwrap and insert with your index finger. Some tampons have plastic applicators that help with insertion.

You want to push it far enough in, so you don’t feel anything. If it feels uncomfortable, it might not be in far enough or it might not be the right size.

Unlike pads, tampons are worn internally so there will be no bulge in your underwear. They are a good choice when you want to go swimming.

Change your tampon every 4 – 6 hours, or when it feels slippery. To remove it, find the cotton string and gently pull it out. Relaxing your pelvic muscles or even bearing down lightly can help.

Only use tampons during the day because wearing one for longer than recommended (for a full night’s sleep, for example) can allow bacteria to accumulate to dangerous levels and increase your risk of toxic shock syndrome—a rare but potentially deadly condition.

Menstrual cup

A menstrual cup works similarly to tampons but instead of absorbing, the cup collects the blood. To use a menstrual cup, you need to boil it in hot water for a few minutes first. Make sure to wait until it cools down. Then fold it in half and, using your index finger, insert it into your vagina. You shouldn’t feel the cup. If you do, you might’ve not put it deep enough or you are using the wrong size. Usually, for young girls, it’s recommended to use the smallest size, but it also depends on your anatomy.

You should replace your period cup every 12 hours, but you might notice that during the first days of your period, it starts to release some blood before that. It’s completely normal. When you’re ready to remove the cup, put yourself in a comfortable position, either sitting, squatting, or with one leg on the toilet, and grab the stem that stays outside the vaginal canal. Pull it gently or try to grab the bottom of the cup with your index finger and thumb to squeeze it and release the vacuum it created. Don’t worry, the first time can be challenging, and it takes practice to get used to changing the cup.

Period panties

Period panties are like other panties but have a special absorbent lining sewn in that does a good job of absorbing discharge and preventing leaks for 8 to 12 hours. They are usually machine-washable and last for up to a year. This can be a convenient and sustainable way to manage your period. However, there are some drawbacks. Period panties are relatively expensive, and you’ll need several pairs to get you through a period. What’s more, in 2023, Thinx, a popular brand was taken to court for using PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

These are chemicals with water-resistant properties that allow the panties to absorb blood and still let your skin feel dry, but they have been shown to disrupt hormone function and may contribute to other serious health conditions. So, look for organic period panties that are PFAS free!

Panty liners

Panty liners are designed to absorb vaginal secretions, not period blood. But you can use them for extra protection when you’re spotting before and after the main flow days.

Remember:

  • Wash your hands before and after changing period products.
  • Dispose of disposables in the trash or the special bin, when provided.
  • Shower or bathe regularly to stay fresh and prevent bacteria overgrowth.

What if my period leaks?

Period leaks are completely normal and happen to almost every woman, even after years of having periods. Try not to stress about it too much and don’t feel ashamed. Here’s how to handle a period leak in public like a pro:

  • Stay calm, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Just look for the nearest restroom where you can clean up or change.
  • Be prepared. If your period is coming up, carry an extra supply of your favourite period products.
  • If you get caught without, ask any friendly looking woman if she has a tampon or pad to spare. She’s probably been there and will be happy to have your back.
  • Double up. Try using a menstrual cup or tampon together with a pad or period panties. Especially if you know you’ll be away from a restroom for a while.
  • Choose darker-coloured clothes for your heaviest days. Chances are few people will notice a leak on black jeans or shorts.
  • Rinse blood stains with cold water and soap as soon as you can to keep the stain from setting.
  • If you can’t clean up right away, tie a jacket or sweater around your waist to conceal the leak.

How do I tell my parents?

Talking to someone who has been there can be really helpful. Many people are happy to share their experiences, give you tips on dealing with cramps and PMS, and help you sort out your period supply needs.

Talk to someone you already feel comfortable with. If not mom or dad, then maybe your sister, best friend, or teacher. Half the world’s population goes through it.

You can start the conversation by asking them about their experiences. Or simply tell them what you need, “Hey, I just started my first period. Can you help me get supplies?”

Final words

Getting ready for your first period can be scary. Even after years of having menstruation, they still manage to surprise you. But it’s a completely natural thing. What’s important is that you feel prepared and let yourself get comfortable with the way your body is changing.

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https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/menstruation.html
https://www.yourperiod.ca/normal-periods/your-first-period/
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/applewomenshealthstudy/updates/menstrualhygieneproducts/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500020/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279054/
https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/20/well/pfas-thinx-period-underwear.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxic_shock_syndrome
https://www.self.com/story/are-nipple-bumps-normal
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstruation_(mammal)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menarche
https://eusci.org.uk/2020/04/09/why-do-humans-and-so-few-other-animals-have-periods/
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