Experts and parents agree the best way to talk about periods with your daughters is in an ongoing, chatty way, rather than a formal sit-down that can feel a bit scary for the child and momentous for the parent.
Many girls now start their periods as early at eight years old, while most start around the age of 12. That’s why it’s important to give a slow drip of information in clear, down-to-earth language so they’re prepared. You do need to talk to your kids - boys too, so they can understand what their sisters are experiencing - rather than leaving it up to their school, which don’t approach the subject of puberty until Year 5.
Martha Silcott, founder of FabLittleBag, biodegradable disposal bags for used tampons and pads, says: “The bottom line is that despite periods being utterly normal, there’s still a bit of a squirmy taboo about talking about them. The only way to break that down is through gradual, relaxed and open conversations.”
Talk about the practicalities (how you might know your period’s starting, what it might feel like, using tampons and sanitary pads) and the biological reason behind periods. As a period is a sign your daughter’s body is now capable of becoming pregnant, it’s important she also knows about how you get pregnant, contraception and lots of chats about self worth and never feeling peer pressured to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Emphasise that periods are completely normal and natural – they’re part of growing up and all women have them.
Mel Gadd, projects coordinator for sexual health charity FPA, which provides innovative sexual health and relationships education for young people, says: “It can make it easier to start providing simple information from a young age, and to talk while you’re doing something else, like the washing-up.
“Many parents feel more comfortable using informal terms for genitals with their young children. It’s good to also introduce the correct terms, like vulva (all the parts of the genitals you can see) and vagina (the muscular tube inside the body), so that girls become more comfortable with these words and don’t get the impression that they should be ashamed about that part of their body.”
But even when you think you’ve covered everything to do with periods and your daughter’s changing body, there may still be some surprise questions. Here, parents give the chat topics they wish they were surprised by.
Do tampons hurt?
“My daughter was terrified of the idea of tampons, partly because her friends (thanks a lot!) had said putting them in hurt. We had a lot of chats about how she just needed to relax so her muscles weren’t tense and to read the instructions carefully, and put one leg up on the loo seat. I said it might feel odd putting one in to start with, but soon it would feel exactly the same as brushing her teeth or washing her hair. She carried on with sanitary pads for a long time, which I must admit I found baffling, but finally got the hang of tampons when she had a swimming party she didn’t want to miss.” Rachel
Can I lose a tampon inside me?
“I hadn’t even thought this was a worry but my daughter had all these bizarre urban myths of tampons clogging up your body. I told her if It isn’t physically possible to lose a tampon inside your body. I explained between the vagina and her uterus was the cervix, which has an entrance large enough for sperm to get through but is far too small for a tampon. I said she should change her tampon every four hours, by pulling the string out. If she ever forgot to remove a tampon, it might get compressed at the top of the vagina but it wasn’t going anywhere else - and if that ever happened, which I seriously doubted, we’d just make a doctor’s appointment for it to be removed. Lou
Will anyone be able to tell if I have a period?
“My daughter was convinced people could tell she was having her period just by looking at her. We were driving at the time and I remember pointing out women waiting at the bus stop, walking down the street, and saying that many of them might be on their period, and you simply couldn’t know. The only way anyone would know she was having her period was if she chose to tell them.” Louise
Is it true I’ll smell?
“I admit I had never heard that one, but my daughter was really paranoid about the smell issue, perhaps because she went to a mixed school. I think I’ve convinced her there is no way she smells, as long as she showers or baths every day and changes her sanitary pad or towel every few hours. I hope I’ve persuaded her that all those vaginal sprays are totally unnecessary, can even make you itchy, and perpetuate neuroses.” Fiona
What if period blood leaks onto my clothes?
“My daughter was obsessed by the horror of this, because a girl in her year had got up from an exam with a patch on the seat of her summer uniform dress. I said that was really bad luck, but if that ever happened to her she would just need to tie a sweatshirt round her waist until she could change. I said the important thing was to be prepared so she should keep a supply of tampons in her school locker and a spare pair of pants in her bag. I said it was a good idea not to wear light coloured clothes during a period, just in case she had a small leakage.” Avril
How can I do PE or go swimming if I have my period?
“We had to have a lot of talks about how having a period didn’t turn you into an invalid, that you can do anything you normally would while on your period. I was surprised how many girls used having their period to get out of PE lessons, so my daughter had thought that was the norm.” Sophie
What do I do with my used tampon or sanitary pad?
“I had totally forgotten to explain what to do to my daughter, so she had just been throwing used sanitary pads in the open bathroom bin, which was pretty gross. On the one hand, I was quite pleased she was so unembarrassed and upfront about it, but I had to tell her that out of politeness for the rest of the family and when she was at a friend’s house or using a public loo, she had to dispose of it discreetly. That meant wrapping it in loo roll or a nappy or dog bag and putting it in the bin or disposing of it later. Kate
Why didn’t you tell me periods hurt so much?
“My daughter was completely pole-axed by periods. She bled very heavily for two weeks in four and had terrible stomach aches. Paracetamol, hot water bottles, baths, didn’t make much difference. After a few months, I took her to the GP and she diagnosed ‘menorrhagia’ - heavy, painful periods - and put her on the pill to regulate them. It’s made a huge difference to her health and happiness. I think it’s important to tell girls that periods are perfectly normal and natural, but from our experience I think girls shouldn’t be given the impression that they’re weak and wimpy if periods really affect them. Retrospectively, I wish I’d talked about how all women are different. Aimee
Can I get pregnant if I’m on my period?
“That was an unexpected question for me. I had to double check I’d got it right with some googling but the short answer: Yes, you can, so don’t have unprotected sex, especially at your age! Turns out sperm can hang around for days, which gives them an opportunity to wiggle in at the tail end of your period.” Mandy