As the mom within a close-knit single parent family, I know that things can get messy sometimes. My newly teenage daughter recently started her period, and my slightly younger son — of course — had to poke his head in a little too closely as I was trying to get her set up with some neat supplies and tried talking to her about the more intimate details of menstrual cycles (in this case, how to get blood out of clothes). And that's before we've even reached the milestone of dealing with the realities of male puberty, something that isn't my strong suit as a woman.
Go on YouTube and search "first period story", and it will soon become apparent that it's really not that rare for girls to start their first period without knowing much about menstruation. Some women share that they thought they were dying when they reached menarche — that's the scientific term for the commencement of menstrual cycles — and hid the fact that they were bleeding from their parents for days while preparing for their funerals. You don't want your daughter to have to live with those kinds of fears, and if she's to be prepared, you have to start early — way before that first period actually hits.
Keep it scientific
Menstruation is a pretty neat thing that not many animals do. Some see it as a milestone on the way to adulthood, something to even be celebrated, while others see it as something shameful or unclean. The great thing about scientific facts is that they don't depend on your opinion — they're just there.
If you've made it this far without knowing much about periods, as a guy, get learning yourself — and make sure to stick to scientific resources that don't bring tall tales into the mix.
Things your daughter should know that you should know to be able to teach it to her include:
- The fact that hormones like estrogen and progesterone signal the female body that it can now get pregnant at some point during puberty — some time after your daughter starts having body odor and growing breasts.
- The uterine lining will start growing thicker to prepare for a possible pregnancy at some point, usually between the ages of 11 and 15, and the ovaries will release an egg. When the egg that is released during ovulation is not fertilized, the uterine lining isn't needed to nurture a baby and will shed during menstruation and then grow all over again.
- Normal menstrual cycles last between 21 and 45 days, and most females will experience a menstrual flow that lasts between two and seven days.
- Some girls will feel moody, and some will be in some pain, during and before their periods. Some will require pain relief to be able to function well, while others won't.
- It is a good idea for your daughter to track her menstrual cycles so she can learn when to expect her period as it becomes more regular, something that will usually take some time.
- Females who soak through a pad or tampon more than once every two hours, who experience severe pain, or whose periods last longer than week should see a doctor.
If you need extra help, videos and science-based texts (like our A girl's guide to the first menstruation) can help you out. Your daughter may want to read this without you; that's fine too, as long as she has the info you need and you're not giving the impression that periods are something weird and yucky.
Other related topics you'll want to consider how to address are sex and how to catch menstrual fluids.
Female hygiene products: What do single dads need to know?
Many girls who first start their periods will be more comfortable using pads, which are worn in the underwear, than anything that is inserted. Many different brands sell menstrual pads, and they look different as well as absorbing different amounts of blood. Your daughter may prefer talking to an older sister, mom, other female relative, or friend about which choices of pads are most appropriate for her. If they aren't available, you could find her some nice YouTube videos to watch, in which girls her age review products.
I should note, here, that reusable menstrual pads are also on the market. These are great for environmentally-aware consumers — my daughter uses them — but sometimes a bit of a hassle to cope with when out and about. Either way, pads need to be changed when they become full, and girls will typically need between three to six a day.
Tampons are worn inside the vagina and again catch varying amounts of menstrual blood and fluids, depending on flow. They are available with and without applicators, and as with disposable pads, girls will usually take some time to figure out which they prefer. With tampons, it's very important to change them every four to eight hours (and that's really the maximum), as wearing a tampon too long can result in toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening and potentially fatal condition. As with pads, your daughter will probably go through three to six every day she menstruates. As an aside, tampons don't cause girls to lose their virginity as some people think — though physiological virginity is a bit of an outdated concept anyway. Hymens, where significant ones are present, can break for just about any reason, from cycling to horse riding.
Reusable menstrual cups are also on the market, and gaining in popularity. These are worn inside the vagina, after which they can be washed and used again. They are environmentally-friendly and, like tampons, allow girls to go swimming during their periods. Reusable menstrual cups come in different shapes, sizes, and brands, and there are, again, a whole bunch of teens on the internet reviewing them all.
Time for a sex-ed refresher?
Your approach to sex education will depend on your personal philosophy and falls outside of the remit of this piece of writing. Girls who have started their periods should, at the very least, know that having sex can get them pregnant. Ideally, you'll add scientifically accurate information about birth control methods and ovulation to your daughter's repertoire. Talking about relationships and consent is also a good idea around now, especially if you haven't done it yet. Informing your daughter won't make her more likely to have sexual intercourse early — rather the opposite, in fact.
Get her a good OBGYN or give her the option to talk to a trusted woman
We're pretty open in my family, with no shame coming from my side. Let's face it, though, teens themselves often prefer to talk with someone who has actually experienced what they're going through — something I'll never be able to say about anything male-specific, whether it's the deepening of the voice, shaving, or wet dreams. No matter how much you know about menstrual cycles and tampons, you'll never experience them yourself. Your daughter may just want to discuss these things with someone else. An OBGYN — a female one, perhaps — can be a good source of information, as can trusted female friends or relatives. You want to be sure your daughter has the right info, but it doesn't necessarily need to come from you.
Take the shame out
Periods are a normal part of life — women may have 480 before they reach menopause, and though they're not anyone's pride and joy, they just happen. Men, as well as women, should know all about periods; if you have a son, too, chances are that he'll have a female partner who menstruates one day. If you start educating your children early, before that pubertal shame and sense of privacy sets in, there's no need to take your sons and daughters aside separately to educate them about puberty. Just discussing the basic facts as they relate to men and women respectively will ensure that everyone's informed about the full range of normal, physiological functions. As a dad talking about female puberty, you'll set a great role model in this regard.