One topic that always generates a lot of questions from mothers involves when and if a newly menstruating girl should switch from sanitary pads[1] to tampons. Whether a Mom asks me during her own gynecological exam, or whether I get pulled aside by a parent at my children's elementary school, the questions are usually the same. When should my daughter start using tampons? How long can she leave one in? Can she wear it overnight? Which one is best? What about Toxic Shock Syndrome? Is there a book to tell her how to use one?

The first thing I tell moms is that until an adolescent girl is ready to use a tampon, it's fruitless to try to force her to. We probably all remember when we made that transition from pads to tampons—you had to be ready. In fact, I have grown patients who still will not use tampons for one reason or another, and that's fine. It's their personal choice. The same principle holds true with your daughter.

What should my daughter know about sanitary pads?

Sanitary pads are the mainstay for adolescent girls as they adjust to the new phenomenon of menstruating. As I think back to the days when you had to fiddle with the old sanitary napkin belt and the bulky, leaky pads of the 1970s, I realize just how much easier girls have it now. Pads nowadays are more absorbent, more comfortable, and have better features such as side wings and increased length to prevent leakage.

These aren't the only changes when it comes to sanitary pads. When disposable pads first became available, in many stores women placed their money in a box and then took a package of sanitary napkins from the counter so that they wouldn't have to undergo the embarrassment of dealing with the male sales clerk. But today, you're likely to end up viewing a multitude of commercials for sanitary pads while you're just trying to watch a little TV with your teenaged son.

Donna says:

When my daughter started her menstrual cycle, she and I discussed what sanitary products are and how to use them. Given my daughter's young age of 11 years old when she started, we decided to start off using sanitary pads. We didn't think tampons would be appropriate at her age. We discussed what the different size pads were to ensure she understood what light, medium, and heavy flow pads were used for and how to choose the right one for her cycle. We also discussed panty liners and pads with wings.

On day one her menstrual bleeding was light. I explained to her you can use a light to medium size pad for protection. As her menstrual bleeding increases, she will need to decide what sanitary pad will give her the right absorbent protection. We also discussed personal hygiene. I told her it is very important to keep yourself clean and replace your sanitary pad. Depending on her menstrual bleeding she will need to change her pad anywhere from 4 to 5 times a day to ensure there is no leaking and no menstrual odor, which can happen during her cycle.

What are the different types of sanitary pads?

Popular disposable sanitary pads are made mostly of wood cellulose fiber with an outer cover of moisture-proof plastic. There are several different types.

Panty Liner—a very thin pad designed to absorb a daily vaginal discharge, light menstrual flow, "spotting," slight urinary incontinence, or for use as a backup when a tampon is being used

Ultra-thin—a very compact pad which typically is as absorbent as a regular or maxi/super pad, but with less bulk

Regular—a middle-range absorbency pad

Maxi/Super—a highly absorbent pad that is useful for the start of a menstrual cycle when menstruation is often heaviest

Night—a highly absorbent pad that is also longer, thereby offering more protection while the wearer is lying down

Maternity—a long, very absorbent pad designed to absorb the bleeding that occurs after childbirth

Thong Panty Liner—a pad designed especially to fit thong underwear

When you're shopping for pads with your daughter, you'll probably end up buying a few different types to see which one works best for her. Because I see many young, as well as older, women with symptoms of skin irritation on their bottoms, I always recommend to my patients that they buy products that are white (no dyes) and unscented (no perfumes) to avoid as many irritants as possible.

And although it may seem obvious, you need to explain to your daughter why it's important not to attempt to flush a sanitary pad down the toilet. Tell her that although it may seem embarrassing to have someone notice that you just disposed of a sanitary pad in the trash, it is far more embarrassing to make people tiptoe through overflowing water because you threw a used sanitary pad in the toilet.

Donna says:

I shared with my daughter that there are different types of sanitary pads with different absorbency. We discussed what a panty liner was and when they are to be used. We discussed when to use medium to heavy pads. I told her that overnight pads can be worn for additional protection while she is sleeping. I told her that these pads come with or without wings. Wings are to hold the sanitary pad in place. Pads come in lightly scented or perfume free. I explained to her since she has sensitive skin, perfume free would be better for her.

  • [1] A pad of absorbent material worn to absorb menstrual blood.
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