Puberty, Part 3
This episode about Menstrual Cycles and Periods is part 3 of our Puberty series. Some kids and adults are hesitant to talk about puberty, so I hope these episodes help you feel more comfortable having conversations about it–that’s my goal. This isn’t meant to replace health and development education–I am not, nor do I claim to be, a medical professional–so I encourage you to further educate yourself through trusted sources like books, reputable websites, doctors, etc. I will use medically accurate terms and link fact sources in my show notes. You may want to talk to a parent or trusted adult before this episode, listen to it together, and discuss it more afterward.
MENSTRUAL CYCLES + PERIODS
The last puberty change to start is your menstrual cycle, a function of your reproductive system. Menstruation aka a period is part of your menstrual cycle. Whether periods make you feel eager, anxious, or both, I hope this discussion helps you feel reassured and competent. You may be wondering when your period will start, some of you may have already started. Just like all of the other changes with puberty, everyone’s timing is different. While we can’t predict exactly when this change will happen, it typically starts two years after breasts begin developing, between ages 9 to 15.
There are some early signs that will let you know your body is preparing for its first menstrual cycle and period. You may notice a white/yellowish spot or thick goop in your underwear. This is called discharge, it’s normal, and it comes out of your vagina, which is the opening between your urethra and anus openings (the holes from which you use the bathroom) – the vaginal opening is in the middle.
Your first period is called menarche. You’ll know when your first period starts because you will see reddish/brownish spots in your underwear. Yay! Welcome to the period club! You will likely have mixed feelings about it though, ranging from excitement to uncertainty, so feel your feelings as you work toward acceptance of this big change.
The reddish/brownish spots you found are a mixture of tissue and blood, but it’s not from an internal injury; it’s a normal part of your menstrual cycle. This likely won’t be a heavy period, so if you don’t have any period products at that moment, after wiping yourself clean you can use toilet paper to blot/wipe the spots in your underwear (then flush that TP), and fold or wrap another wad of toilet paper in your underwear to protect it. When you’re able to change into clean underwear, rinse the spots on your dirty pair in the sink (then wash your hands and the sink with soap), spray the spots with stain remover, and wash that pair in the laundry. Your first period may just be a light flow of blood and only last a few days. And when we say flow, it’s not like a faucet, rather, the blood slowly drips out. The amount of blood varies between a little (light flow) and a lot (heavy flow).
So you don’t feel so alone in this big change, you may want to share your news with a parent, trusted adult (like a teacher or nurse), or friend who has already started their period. They can give you support and helpful information to help you get more acquainted with managing your period.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR CYCLE
As I mentioned before, your period is part of your menstrual cycle, which has four stages.
The day your period starts is Day 1 of your menstrual cycle. Menstruation aka your period happens because your body is shedding a buildup of blood and tissue that was lining the inside of your uterus. Periods typically last between three and seven days. Your period flow will likely change: it could start out light, the next day be moderate, the next be heavy flow, then slow down the next two days til it stops. Period blood colors vary throughout your cycle and can be light red, deep red, or brownish.
During your period you may feel bloated, tired, and experience back pain or menstrual cramps, which are pains below your stomach. Cramps can typically be treated with normal pain medicine, and there are also options specifically for menstrual symptom relief.
For the first year or two of your period, your menstrual cycle is trying to regulate and it will be hard to predict when your next period will come. One menstrual cycle may take 32 days for the next period to start while another cycle is 45 days long. Tracking your period’s start and end dates can help you see how your body is regulating both the lengths of your period and menstrual cycle. You can track your period on a calendar or in a journal, and note your symptoms before and during your period, your heavier or lighter flow days, and any thoughts and feelings you have.
Here’s a heads up of things to watch for:
- Need to change your period product more than every two hours
- Periods last more than eight days
- Menstrual cycles are less than 21 days or greater than 35 days after being regular
- Bleed in between periods
- Period blood is colored orange, green, or gray
- Severe pain during periods
- Sudden fever/illness while using period products, particularly tampons
If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your parents and your doctor.
Menstruation is the first part of the follicular phase, which also starts on Day 1 of your period. During this phase you may feel more energized and productive, much different from how you felt during your period. The follicular phase is the first half of your menstrual cycle, typically lasts two weeks long, and ends at ovulation.
Around Day 14 of your cycle, your body releases a mature egg from one of your ovaries; this is called ovulation. The egg travels through a fallopian tube to your uterus.
After ovulation the lining of the inside of your uterus builds up with blood and tissue. Think of it like your body is creating a “nest” in case the egg released during ovulation is fertilized and grows into a baby. But when the egg is not fertilized, it exits your body when the uterus lining sheds and your menstrual cycle begins again.
About seven days before your period starts, you may experience premenstrual syndrome or PMS. Symptoms include:
- Back pain
- Sore breasts
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Food cravings
These symptoms subside when your period starts. The luteal phase is the last half of your menstrual cycle and lasts about two weeks, ending at menstruation.
Now let’s talk about managing your period. Before your first period, I recommend you pick up some period products. This is so you can familiarize yourself with them and not have to scramble when your first period surprises you. There are multiple options for managing your period, so while it may seem overwhelming at first, it’s helpful to know what’s out there so you can find what works best for you–which may change over time.
The simplest period product is period underwear, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: underwear for your period. It fits like regular underwear but is made with layers of special fabric that absorb blood so it won’t leak onto your clothes. Be aware that your skin will feel wet against the fabric, so wipe yourself clean when you use the bathroom. Typically period underwear needs to be changed around 12 hours, depending on the absorbency. It also needs to be frequently washed and dried on special cycles. You’ll need multiple pairs of period underwear for your cycle so you have clean pairs to change into when others are dirty. Period underwear initially costs more than other period products, but it’s reusable and can hold up for several months up to a few years, replacing hundreds of disposable pads or tampons that end up in a landfill. You can wear period underwear with other period products as a backup to catch any leaks that may occur. Period underwear can be worn while being active and playing sports, and while it doesn’t work for swimming, there are period swimsuits designed for water.
Another more simple period product is a pad, which is a skinny oval of absorbent material that lays on the inside of your underwear and, like period underwear, absorbs blood so it won’t leak onto your clothes. Pads come in different lengths, like an overnight pad is longer to offer more coverage while you sleep. They come in different thickness to absorb light spotting to super heavy flows. Some styles have “wings” or tabs in the middle that wrap around your underwear so no blood leaks out. Some pads made from cloth are reusable after washing, and others are disposable. And some pads even come scented to help mask the smell of the blood. Disposable pads come folded in a square the size of your palm, then you peel off the wrapper and attach the sticky side to the inside of your underwear, centered on the middle part that covers your privates. Similar to period underwear, your skin will feel wet against the pad. Pads need to be changed about every 3 hours, both because of the pad’s absorption and to prevent bacteria. Wipe yourself clean when you use the bathroom and change the pad out by peeling from one end to the other. Fold or roll the used pad and wrap it in a pad wrapper or toilet paper to help contain the mess. Disposable pads and wrappers need to go in the trash when swapped out. Some public restroom stalls have a mini trash for period products. Remember to wash your hands with soap afterward. Sometimes pads shift or become too full of blood and stop absorbing it, causing blood to leak out onto your clothes. Wearing menstrual underwear can help protect your clothes from leaks. Pads cannot be worn when swimming, and may be uncomfortable during other physical activities and sports.
Those period products are used outside your body, and there are also other options that are used inside your body. While these next period products require some getting used to and are not as simple, some find them more convenient and clean.
A tampon is compacted cotton that you insert into your vagina to absorb the blood from the inside so it doesn’t leak out. Tampons usually have an applicator to help you guide it in and an attached string that stays outside your body to help you take the tampon out. Tampons cannot get lost in your body, so even if the string goes inside, you’ll still be able to remove the tampon. Tampons vary in thickness to accommodate light to super heavy flow, but are typically about two two to three inches. Applicators measure longer, but as the tampon gets pushed out of the larger end of the applicator, the smaller end fits inside the larger end. Even if the package says they’re flushable, to be safe just wrap the used tampon in toilet paper and throw it in the trash with the applicator and wrapper. Tampons should be changed at least every four to six hours, and never worn overnight. Again this is because of the tampon’s absorption and to prevent bacteria, and also to prevent a rare but serious infection called toxic shock syndrome. Sometimes tampons become too full of blood and stop absorbing it, causing blood to leak out. Wearing a pad or menstrual underwear can help protect your clothes from leaks. Tampons can be worn while being active and playing sports as well as swimming, but you need to watch that the string stays inside your swimsuit. Tampons also absorb water when swimming, and may leak bloody water when you get out of the pool, so you’ll need to change your tampon more often and wear a larger size for absorbency.
A menstrual cup is a U-shaped silicone cup that you insert into your vagina to collect blood, and it forms a seal to prevent blood from leaking out. Menstrual cups are inserted by folding the cup and guiding it in by hand. Once inside, the cup will open up and create suction so the cup stays in. Like tampons, menstrual cups cannot get lost in your body. Menstrual cups typically come in a few sizes, sometimes in a teen size, and can hold as much blood as 3-5 regular tampons–this means less trips to the bathroom. When you need to empty the menstrual cup, wash your hands before sitting on the toilet. DO NOT PULL THE MENSTRUAL CUP OUT FROM THE STEM. To remove the cup, squeeze the bottom of the cup to break the seal and release the suction. Then pull the cup out from the cup bottom, not the stem, and dump the blood in the toilet. Wipe yourself clean, wipe the cup with toilet paper, and rinse the cup out in the sink before inserting it back in. Remember to wash your hands and the sink with soap. In a pinch you can just wipe the cup clean with toilet paper before reinserting it, like if you’re at school and don’t have a sink next to you. A menstrual cup can be left in for up to 12 hours, and can be worn overnight. When the cup gets full, blood may leak out so wearing a pad or menstrual underwear can help protect your clothes from leaks. After your period finishes, sanitize the menstrual cup by boiling it in water or using a microwave steamer bag, then let the cup cool off before storing. Different brands have different shapes of menstrual cups, so trying a few kinds can help you find the best fit. Like period underwear, menstrual cups initially cost more than other period products, but it’s reusable and can last for years, replacing thousands of disposable pads or tampons that end up in a landfill. Menstrual cups work well for being active, playing sports, and swimming.
Some find that tampons and menstrual cups feel uncomfortable and take some getting used to, so they wait until they’re older to use them. Whatever period products you choose to use is entirely up to you. And your preference may change over time, which is fine. I started out using pads (period underwear wasn’t around back then). I tried a tampon and didn’t like it so I kept using pads for another year. Then I tried a tampon again but this time I liked it, so I used tampons for the next two decades until a couple years ago I discovered menstrual cups. So it’s okay to try things out and see what works for you.
It’s a good idea to have extra supplies of the period products you use in your backpack, locker, sports bag, etc. so you’re prepared no matter what. A waterproof bag can come in handy, if you ever have to change out of wet/dirty underwear, the bag will keep your other belongings clean and dry as you transport it home–remember to wash them both when you get home.
You can buy period products from grocery stores, and even more options can be found online with a simple search. If you’d prefer not to hunt around for all of the period products, my friend Lauren with @lift.period put together a kit called Olive’s Box that has all of these products inside it and more for you to try out and see what you like.
If you ever find yourself needing period products but don’t have any, ask someone in the bathroom, the school nurse, or a teacher you feel comfortable if they have a pad or tampon you can use. We’ve all been there, so we get it. As part of the period club, we help each other out.
That’s a lot more puberty changes, and we have even more to discuss. Puberty is going to happen to everyone at some point, so don’t make fun of people, okay? Have compassion for them as well as yourself. Puberty is a part of life, so accept it. It won’t last forever, and there are lots of people who can help you through it.
Next episode we’ll cover emotions and healthy habits.
American Girl Books:
The Care and Keeping of You 1: The Body Book for Younger Girls
The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls
Part 1 Episode 43: What Puberty Is, Growth, Smell, Hair, and Skin
Part 2 Episode 44: Shape, Weight, Breast Development, and Body Hair
Part 3 Episode 45: Menstrual Cycles and Periods
Part 4 Episode 46: Emotions and Healthy Habits
If you have questions about what we covered in this episode, or a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send an email (tweens get the OK from your parents) to [email protected] .
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