As I noted earlier, the beginning of breast development is a tremendously important milestone in every girl's life. However, it pales in comparison to the onset of menstruation[1].

Menstruation. Just hearing the word uttered publicly seems to cause some fully-grown women to squirm with discomfort. And yet, it's a fact of life for all of us. As a result, we have the responsibility of making it crystal clear to our daughters that there is absolutely no need to be ashamed or embarrassed about it.

At the same time, however, we have to be realistic. No matter how much information we provide to our daughters, and no matter how supportive we may be, the onset of menstruation (doctors refer to it as "menarche[2]," which is pronounced "MEN-ar kee") is very likely to be a significant source of concern for any girl.

(Just pause and reflect for a moment. When your daughter learns about menstruation, or when she experiences it herself for the first time, she likely will be thinking, "Wait a minute. I'm going to be bleeding? From there? Frequently? For decades to come? And it probably will be accompanied by pain, cramps, and bloating? You have got to be KIDDING me!")

As always, it's crucial for us as mothers to carefully guide our daughters through this unsettling change in life. The best way to do so is by serving as good role models. How we react when the subject of menstruation is raised, and how we react to the onset of our own periods, is likely to be mimicked by our daughters.

Menstruation is truly a strange topic. Even though it's commonplace, it's a taboo subject in the mass media.

Further, whether you realize it or not, even well-educated and well-informed men are completely clueless when it comes to the facts of menstruation. To them, periods are some great female mystery. We need to ensure that our daughters don't perpetuate this misconception that menstruation somehow makes us alien beings.

Clearly, we already have made great advances in that regard. In some cultures in the past, menstruating women were viewed as "unclean" and were segregated from the larger group. We've come a long way since then. But even today, when women are assertive in making their views known or in protecting their own interests, they too often are characterized as suffering from "PMS."[3] We have to work in common cause with our daughters to remove this unfair and unfortunate stigma.

What do I need to know about my daughter's first menstrual cycle?

Typically, a girl's first menstrual cycle[4] is preceded by pubic hair growth. This should serve as a sign to you that your daughter's menstruation is not too far away. Pubic hair growth typically occurs when a girl is about 10 years old. Growth of underarm hair usually follows about 2 years later. Girls have their largest growth spurt during this time period, and menstruation typically begins as well.

All of these developments are the result of new hormones[5] swirling around in a girl's body. These hormones are also a primary cause of the emotional roller coaster that girls experience at this age. You may very well notice an increase in your daughter's irritability, moodiness, and even anxiety. Such reactions can first be seen at age 7 with an initial small rise of hormones,

Pubic hair growth typically occurs when a girl is about 10 years old.

and then they spike around age 11 when the hormones go into high gear. (When that happens, your previously well-adjusted, good-natured, sweet young daughter may be a little less pleasant to be around.)

These hormones are part of an intricate biological dance within your daughter's body. First, hormones begin to rise from a girl's pituitary gland. These hormones then cause increased estrogen[6] to be produced by the girl's ovaries. Next the adrenal glands[7] kick in, producing androgens[8]. (Androgens are male-like hormones that contribute to hair growth in the pubic region and under the arms.) And finally, growth hormones[9] go into their most active stage.

Interestingly, girls typically have their greatest growth spurt about two years before boys do. If you visit any fifth or sixth grade classroom, you're almost certain to notice that the girls are, on average, taller than the boys.

Donna says:

My daughter started her menstrual cycle this year at 11 years old. On the day that she started, we were out visiting a zoo and she complained that she had cramps from all the walking and wasn't feeling well. Later that evening, she called me into the bathroom and indicated that she thought she had started her period. I informed her that she did. She and I sat there for a moment. I was overwhelmed with emotion that my daughter was growing up so quickly. We discussed what this meant and what she would need to do going forward. Her cycle produced a dark brown blood discharge on days one through three. On the fourth day there was a slight pink bloody discharge, but it was still mostly brown. She never experienced any real red menstrual blood flow during her first cycle. Her cycle lasted for 7 days.

Brett says:

I got my first period after most of my friends had, and I had had a lot of previous education about what to expect. Especially with an OB-GYN as a mother, I had a supply of pads and tampons, and when I first got my period I just proceeded to use a pad and inform my mom of the development. Even despite the fact that my mother was an OB-GYN and I had discussed the menstrual cycle in school, it was with my older brother's girlfriend that I talked about the more embarrassing aspects of getting my period. Having an older teenager to talk to was really helpful and helped me get past the seemingly awkward issues that accompany getting your period for the first time. However, it was also very important for me that I was able to tell my mom that I got my period without feeling self-conscious.

  • [1] The breakdown and shedding of the uterine lining resulting in the menstrual period.
  • [2] The initial onset of menstrual cycles.
  • [3] An abbreviation that refers to premenstrual syndrome. PMS refers to the period of time preceding the menstrual period where, due to elevated levels of progesterone, symptoms of bloating, moodiness, irritability, acne, and breast tenderness are more prevalent.
  • [4] The monthly episode of vaginal bleeding that can last for up to a week.
  • [5] Chemicals produced by an organ that have an effect on other organs or cells in the human body.
  • [6] Refers to a number of "female" hormones found in the human body. They are produced by the ovaries, but synthetic forms also can be manufactured for use in birth control pills and for other medical purposes.
  • [7] The glands in the human body responsible for producing stress response hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Some androgens, or male-like hormones, are produced in the adrenal glands as well. The adrenal glands lie next to the kidneys.
  • [8] Hormones that cause masculinizing effects such as acne, increased hair growth on the face or body, enlargement of the clitoris, and deepening of the voice. In females, androgens are produced by the adrenal glands and the ovaries.
  • [9] Chemicals produced by the pituitary gland that influence metabolism and cause growth of organs.
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