Written by: Dr. Charlotte Markey
Menstruating, or getting your menstrual period (aka, your period) is a pretty big deal. Some girls worry because they don’t know when it’s going to happen for the first time. You may feel excited to get your period, or you may feel worried about this change. Either way, it’s important to understand what your period is and what you can do to prepare for it.
At some point during puberty, your body will start to prepare for the day when you may want to have a baby. Don’t worry! You probably don’t want to consider having a baby until you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, but your body gets ready ahead of time (just 100 years ago it was common for girls to start having babies and families in their teens – that’s what people did back then). In order for an egg to be fertilized by sperm and develop into a baby, eggs have to be released from your ovaries. This is called ovulation. You’re born with all your eggs sitting there in your ovaries, where they remain until puberty. Then, once a month (about every 28 days) an egg is released. The egg travels down the fallopian tube and into your uterus, where it remains for a day or two. If it isn’t fertilized by sperm, it flows out of your body through your vagina. These eggs are tiny, so you’re unlikely to ever see one when this happens.
So what is all of the blood associated with getting your period? A blood-like substance lines your uterus in preparation for the possibility of a fertilized egg growing into a baby. If the egg is fertilized, this lining offers it protection and nourishment. However, if an egg is left unfertilized, this blood-like lining is not needed. Your uterus sheds this lining, and the lining plus your egg flows out through your vagina.
When you first get your period, you may notice that the blood is not quite red, but more of a brownish color. You may see little spots of brown or red on your underwear (sometimes called spotting). During the first year or two of having your period, it’s usually not quite “regular.” You may experience a lot of blood flow on some days and not others. You may get it every 25 days or every 60 days. This is all totally normal and nothing to be alarmed about. Girls usually settle into a regular pattern after the first year or two of having their period. If you don’t, and the unpredictability of getting your period is stressful to you, this is a good thing to talk with your doctor about (either a pediatrician or a gynecologist, the type of doctor that takes care of girls’ and women’s reproductive health). Sometimes, medications can be used to help create regular menstrual cycles.
Girls can have very different experiences when it comes to getting their periods. Some may experience some cramps in their lower stomach. Some may experience lower back pain. Some may feel tired or cranky, and some may feel full of energy. Some will experience a lot of bleeding and some will experience hardly any at all. Your body is different from everyone else’s.
All girls can benefit by being prepared for their first period. You don’t want blood to stain your underwear and clothes. There are a growing number of options for how to handle these practical issues that come with getting a period. It may be easiest when you first get your period to use a pad that you can stick to your underwear. The bottom side of these pads typically have a sticker-like surface that mostly keeps them from moving around. Once a pad gets moist with blood, you’ll want to change it—usually a few times per day.
Another option is to use a tampon. Tampons are almost like a (small) stopper or plug you’d use to keep the water from going down the drain in a bathtub, but they’re made of a substance that resembles the top of a Q-tip. A tampon is inserted into your vagina and will absorb the blood while keeping any from leaking out. Girls often find that tampons with plastic applicators are easier to use than tampons without applicators or with paper/cardboard applicators. (The front of any box of tampons will make note of this.) These also need to be changed a few times a day, usually. Using a tampon for the first time can be a challenge, and you may want advice from someone who uses them.
Some girls and women use menstrual/period cups. These may be a bit trickier to use than a pad or a tampon because they need to be sort of folded up and then inserted into your vagina to catch the blood flow. They are removed and emptied a couple of times per day, or as needed. One of the benefits of using a cup is that it can be cleaned and reused day after day and month after month. Another benefit is in terms of the environmental impact. Although menstrual products that are disposable may seem cheaper and easier to use than reusable products, they create a lot of waste that needs to be disposed of. In the long run, they cost more than reusable products as well.
Another option is period underwear. These are underwear with built-in padding in the crotch. The advantage of period underwear is that the padding doesn’t move around the way a removable pad can. The disadvantage is that, as you can imagine, these underwear need to be cleaned really well between uses. Usually this means rinsing them out in the sink and also washing them in a washing machine. They can also be fairly expensive ($20 or more per pair).
Getting your period comes with some hassles and the need for some supplies. It is totally normal to feel somewhat annoyed by some of this. It is an inevitable part of growing up, however, and something that will likely become much easier to deal with across time. If you are having a difficult time with any aspect of dealing with your period, be sure that you talk with a parent, aunt, school nurse, physician, or another adult who can help you. Most women are happy to help you and will have developed some tricks that make managing getting a period easier to handle.
This article was adapted from The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless by Dr. Charlotte Markey. For more information, go to the book’s webpage: www.TheBodyImageBookforGirls.com