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Menarche – first period in a nutshell

There is still a damaging taboo over menstruation - and that blue menstrual blood that we’ve seen so many times on TV is just the tip of the iceberg. Misleading period representation in commercials, so as the poor access to period products in some parts of our globe cause fear, uncertainty, and shame among young girls who are approaching adulthood. Some parents feel very insecure to outline the topic of menarche during a conversation, mostly in fear of the eye-rolling reaction of their child. This article is dedicated to all the people who are approaching adulthood - and for their parents, who might need a helping hand before introducing their child to menstruation :)

7 minreading time • Text: Dominika Olchowik

Menarche first period illustration

Illustration: Jarek Danilenko

What is menarche?

Menarche marks the onset of menstruation and indicates the beginning of the capacity to reproduce. It is a milestone for female biological development. In simple terms the first period! 

During the menstrual cycle, the lining of the womb builds up additional layers to allow the reception and development of a fertilised embryo. If fertilisation does not take place, extra layers from the uterus sheds – this means that the membrane peels off, and then vaginal bleeding occurs.

The first menstrual bleeding is usually lighter than any subsequent one. The first period may appear more like brownish spotting, as the flow is rather lighter and it might take a longer time to release the blood through the vagina. Menarche may also last shorter than the next periods – the average time is anywhere from 2 to 7 days.

Menarche is not only the culmination of puberty, during which the body prepares for a new, biological role. It is a topic that causes a lot of fear and embarrassment among young girls, whose parents do not always feel comfortable taking the first step and introducing their child to the secrets of puberty either.

What triggers menarche?

Menarche occurs after a set of physiological and anatomical processes:

  • Gradual increase of estrogen level
  • Attainment of a sufficient body mass (average 17% of body fat)
  • Growth of the uterus and its lining (endometrium)
  • Widening of the pelvis and hips

Menstruating begins usually about two years after the onset of puberty. However, the age at which menarche occurs depends on numerous environmental and genetic factors that may either delay or speed up the process:

  • Girls with lower body weight usually start menstruating later – scientists have designated the so-called “critical bodyweight” needed for menarche to appear, which is approximately 46 kg  (101 lbs) per 157 cm (5 feet) of height.
  • A very active and sporty lifestyle may influence the age at menarche, and also delay subsequent periods.
  • Medical conditions, diabetes, heart diseases, etc.
  • The environment may also affect the age at menarche: studies show that girls who live in cities experience menarche earlier than girls that live in the countryside.
  • Research done on psychosocial stress shows that it leads to earlier menarche.

What is the average age at menarche?

There is no clear answer to the question of when the onset of the first menstrual cycle begins. There is, however, an indicative age framework. It is assumed that the age at menarche of girls living in developed countries usually occurs between 10 and 16 years.

Physiologically, puberty is believed to begin at an average age of 8 years – menstruation begins about 4 years later, 2 to 3 years after breast development is reached on the Tanner Stage 4, which determines the stage of sexual development. 

  • If a girl starts her period before age of 8, she might have a condition called precocious puberty and should ask for help and get medical advice.
  • On the other hand, if a girl develops breasts and pubic hair but her period does not start by the time she turns 16, it’s called primary amenorrhea – a condition that should be consulted with a medical doctor.

What is also important to point out – it is completely normal if periods are irregular even for the first two years of menstruation. Usually, it takes a few months for the body to find its natural pattern. However, what should be tracked is if period comes every month. If not – go and get some medical advice!

Read our article: Why do humans menstruate?

What are the symptoms of the first period?

Before the menarche, girls can experience many changes associated with puberty – not only physical, but also psychological and psychosocial ones. During early adolescence abstract thinking and the system of values are emerging, and so is a deeper ability of introspection and absorbing different perspectives. Those, just like the physical changes, are deeply personal, therefore it’s very hard to set a strict timing for that process.

Typical changes during girls’ puberty include:

  • Breast growth – breasts start to grow approximately two years before the menarche
  • Curlier and coarser pubic hair
  • Changes in body structure – due to fat distribution and fluctuating levels of hormones
  • White spots on the underwear – this is a normal vaginal discharge which usually begins about 6 months to 1 year before the menarche

These changes don’t need to appear in this particular order – for example, some girls notice pubic hair thickening before their breasts start to grow. Every body is different and unique, and therefore it has its own timing.

Other symptoms associated with periods are called PMS (premenstrual symptoms). It is a consequence of variable levels of hormones during this time. During PMS you may experience:

  • mood swings
  • anxiety
  • breast pain
  • feeling of swelling (due to water retention)
  • weakness 
  • bloating and stomach ache
  • cramps 
  • swollen and tender breasts
  • headaches
  • acne
  • greasy hair
  • food cravings

PMS usually goes away after the first few days of the period. Of course, you don’t need to find yourself having all of the symptoms above. Every female is different, and so are their periods.

Exploring the world of period protection

Another very important issue related to the first menstruation (and subsequent periods) is protection against leaking and feminine hygiene. With the first period, a wonderful time of body exploration begins.

There are plenty of period products designed to help control the blood flow and keep your underwear clean and dry. The only thing to do is to find a perfect one, tailored to one’s personal needs and preferences. So is it pads or tampons? The most popular choice for the first period is a sanitary pad. Why?

  • Pads are for external use, therefore, unlike tampons, they are less likely to cause internal bacterial infections.
  • Application is very simple – simply glue them to your underwear by their sticky side; some pads come with handy wings on the sides.
  • A pad should be changed when needed – usually around 4-5 hours of usage.

Many people wonder whether wearing a tampon is a safe option when a girl has just started menstruating. In fact, gynecologists and medical specialists claim that tampons have no negative influence on girls' health and can be used during menarche. However, choosing a tampon at such an early age is a matter of comfort, body awareness, and emotional development. Many females use a tampon cause it’s much more convenient and suitable for their healthy lifestyles and activities. Even though it is safe to choose a tampon at an early age, doctors suggest waiting a few months after the menarche and explore the subject of menstrual health and hygiene a little bit more before turning to internal period protection.

Introducing your child to their first period

As the subject of the first menstruation is often neglected, it is no wonder that young girls and all menstruating people may have a distorted view of the process and may not fully understand the symptoms and meaning of the entire period of puberty. For many women, the appearance of bleeding appears to be “unfit” and precludes them from taking part in a lot of activities. It is important not to treat menstruation as a disease – on the contrary, it indicates the proper functioning of the body and its proper development concerning the age of the girl. Unfortunately, most of us got the stigma of the school corridor, where we hastily walked with a sanitary napkin hidden under the sleeve. That is why it is worth talking about your experiences and overcoming this unnecessary fear together!

If you’re a parent and you would like to introduce your child to menstruation but don’t know how – we got your back! 

  • Start by checking their knowledge by asking what they already know – you might be surprised with the answer! Be aware that kids like to discuss very different subjects and seek help among their schoolmates.
  • Stay open-minded and talk maturely – don’t make it another “the birds and the bees” talk; it might happen that your child will start puberty or menstruating earlier.
  • Avoid euphemisms – make sure to name things exactly what they are; talk about menstruation, vagina, period blood, instead of “these days” or “down there”; it is very important to build self-esteem and normalise this process.
  • Answer every question – assure the child that they have an ally in you; instead of making them look for the answer on the school corridor, let them know that you will always give a helping hand and they can feel comfortable.
  • Share the experience – either your own or the ones you’ve observed in your mother, sister, etc.; try to explain what, when, and where – share the essential information that might be actually useful; you might save biological curiosities for the later conversation!

American scientists conducted research that proved that people with a uterus whose relatives engaged in conversations about the menarche had much better experiences and subsequent bleeding was not that stressful for them. Others, when listing associations with the term "menstruation", used terms such as "trauma" and "shame". Blood has negative connotations, so it's no wonder that without proper explanation, period causes a lot of anxiety and fear.

What are the symptoms of menarche? Will there be a lot of blood? My breasts and stomach ache, is this normal? – these are just some of the questions your child might ask you before their first period. And you actually know the answer to each of them! You don’t need to share any scientific menstrual information, especially during the first conversation. Rely on your knowledge or experience! 

Perks of being on period?

  • First of all, having a period is a sign of health. Despite the fact that having your first period might be stressful and confusing – it is a sign of a positive body development.
  • Girls, hear me out – period is not a disease! However, if there are any disturbing symptoms, don’t be afraid to seek help and ask a medical doctor or a gynecologist questions. It might take some time to get used to periods and their traits. It requires a certain level of self-care and a responsible approach to menstrual hygiene, but most importantly – this is the time that you can shamelessly focus only on yourself!

I think we are all tired of treating periods as a hot potato in public conversation. We should definitely normalise this subject, talk about menarche with children, and spread the idea to help women all around the world to receive their rights and access to period protection. 

Sources

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