Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
First periods can be quite the adventure; I know mine was… But that's a story for another time. Today we're here to talk about how you can prepare your child for her first period and how to discuss puberty in general. To make this moment a little easier for parents and children alike, we decided to ask leading pediatrician Lisa Stern, MD, for some guidance. If you want to open up a line of communication between you and your daughter, consider this your guide. From incorporating books to using your pediatrician as a resource during yearly check-ups and participating in school programs that cover sex ed and puberty, there are so many ways to approach the topic.
Since Stern recently collaborated with LOLA, a feminine hygiene product line, to create a first-period kit, we knew she'd have some great information around the dos and don'ts of "the talk," as well as a concrete list of must-haves to prepare for the actual first period. If you're wondering what a first-period kit is, it's exactly what it sounds like: a comprehensive assortment of supplies to get you and your daughter through her first period without panicking or embarrassing anyone. But before you run out to the nearest pharmacy or sit your daughter down, considering reading through this list of tips from Stern to make sure you are prepared as a parent to help your daughter navigate this transition, too.
Freshen Up on the Basics
First things first: You have to make sure you understand a topic before you explain it to someone else. Stern explained the scientific definition of what a period is, so you can clearly explain to your daughters. "Menstruation, or having a period," she says, "is when blood (period fluid) leaves the body through the vagina," which lasts about three to seven days each month. She explains that it "usually starts about two years after a girl notices her body is taking on a more womanly shape (breasts growing and new body hair appearing)." And when your daughter asks why women get their periods, the answer is actually pretty simple. "Having a monthly period is a sign that a female can reproduce," says Stern.
Make Yourself Comfortable
Before you dive into the conversation, make sure you are as comfortable as possible discussing it so your daughter is, too. "If parents talk openly to their children about reproduction and puberty, their children are more likely to turn to them when they have questions later on (i.e., as teens)," explains Stern. At this age, "parents have this amazing opportunity to share their values and morals. Once they understand that their children will get the information one way or another—either on the schoolyard or from home—they will often get over their awkwardness and try their best to guide and educate their offspring." If you're still lacking some confidence to tackle this topic, don't be afraid to lean on a book. Stern reminds us that "books are an important resource and can be read together, taking pressure off the talk."
It's Never Too Early
Timing is tricky. While you may be hesitant to talk to your daughter before she's ready to discuss puberty, it's always best to begin the conversation earlier rather than later. Specifically, Stern says that "as a pediatrician, I start the puberty conversation at the 8-year-old check up." Her rule of thumb is all about discussing it in different degrees of detail depending on the child's age and maturation. "I feel it's important to answer children's questions honestly and to give the right amount of information based on developmental stage. For example, if a 4-year-old girl says, 'When am I going to get big breasts?' I would say, 'When you're older, your breasts will start to grow.'" In other words, you don't need to "launch into an in-depth discussion about puberty" in that specific example; the response might look different for a 12-year-old.
Make Your Daughter Comfortable
If you feel totally fine having this conversation with your daughter but she seems hesitant to discuss her development with you, it may be due to your approach, or it could have nothing at all to do with you. The best way to make sure she gets the right information without having to discuss it with you is by giving her a book. Stern recommends The Care and Keeping of You, which is a series for girls ages 8 to 10 with an older girl book ages 10 and up. Deal With It is another option that takes a humorous approach if you think your daughter would do with something funny but informative.
The new First Period Kit ebook, LOLA’s Personal, Honest, Real-Life Guide to Your First Period, is also a great free resource for girls starting at about 11 years old, suggests Stern. Or if you really value the person-to-person approach, perhaps "there is another adult woman in your daughter's life that she would be comfortable talking to." And you can always ask your pediatrician for guidance.
Avoid These Words
To make sure the first-period conversation is a productive one, there are a few buzzwords that you should work to avoid. "avoid words like 'nightmare,' 'traumatic,' or 'humiliating,'" Stern notes. "It's important to be factual, not give too much information; follow your child's lead through the conversation and avoid imposing negative judgment." She also suggests that you shouldn't share your own "stories if you perceived that your puberty was a terrible experience. As with most things, humor goes a long way, so share something if you think it will make your child laugh."
Trust your own judgment, but follow your child's lead as her reactions may not be what you expect. Stern also takes this opportunity to discuss things like "discharge, cramps, and different types of feminine products when I think girls are getting close to their first period."
Get the Supplies
Once you've had an open dialogue about what to expect before it happens, make sure you have enough supplies ready to go so that when it does happen, you won't need to panic about making sure your daughter has everything she needs to feel psychically comfortable. Indeed, Stern makes "sure that girls have period supplies well in advance of their first period." For a starter set, you can see all of the items included in the LOLA set, from pads to tampons (with application instructions) and a few fun items like stickers and a welcome card to take the pressure off.
Feel free to use the detailed image below as a reference for everything you should have.
Talk to Your Sons, Too
So far we've only mentioned the puberty conversation with your daughters. But bringing this topic up with your son is just as important. Stern says, "As a pediatrician, I talk to boys about puberty at their 9-year-old check up. I show them my 'bag of balls' (aka an orchidometer, which are beads the size of testicles at different stages in puberty). As testicles grow, they produce increasing amounts of testosterone, which cause growth spurts, a boy's voice to deepen, his penis and muscles to grow, and new body hair. Parents have other opportunities to discuss male puberty and a man's role in reproduction if a boy has questions about erections." It's not a bad idea to discuss the developmental process for both sexes, either. So if you want to talk to your sons about periods, make sure you explain it as a natural process and not as something scary, funny, or strange.
One Size Doesn't Fit All
As with any delicate conversations around sexuality, bodies, and self-care, it's essential to remember that everybody is unique and there isn't a one-size fits all formula. So try to be flexible and open-minded as you help your child navigate her first period. As Stern reminds us, "Some girls are excited to mature and start their period; they may be open to discussions and have many questions. Others shun conversations about puberty and cover their ears when the topic arises. Try to respect a girl's boundaries while making sure she is informed about the bare-bones basics of puberty, periods and period products, and reproduction."
Shop the LOLA first period kit below, and feel free to swap advice or ask for more tips in the comment section below.