Gynecology

Your First Menstrual Cycle

It’s very normal for your first menstrual cycle (aka menarche) to be a little scary. You’re not sure what to expect from your body or in terms of the discomfort you’ll feel–and you don’t know how long that discomfort will last. The more information you have, the better you’ll be able to navigate both your first period and the ones that follow.

For most individuals who menstruate, the menstrual cycle will become simply another aspect of your daily life. For some, your period may be more severe and intense; others may hardly notice it. Periods can be very consistent or frustratingly dynamic (heavy one month and light the next). Everyone’s periods will be slightly different, and your first menstrual cycle may not necessarily be predictive of what you will experience to follow.

As you navigate your first menstrual cycle, it’s important to know that this is a normal part of life–and that you can develop habits or find therapies that will make your future periods easier to handle.

What Happens During a Menstrual Cycle?

Menstruation is the result of normal processes within the uterus. When you’re young, the uterus has only a very thin lining. But as you approach puberty, your body begins producing more estrogen. This estrogen does many things, one of which is helping the uterine lining grow thicker. This thicker lining is intended to help fertilized eggs attach to the wall of the uterus to enable a pregnancy to begin. When that fertilized egg does not result in a pregnancy after a period of time the lining of the uterus is shed–and a new lining grows to replace it to prepare for your next menstrual cycle and possibility of pregnancy.

The shedding of the old lining is what causes menstruation–the broken-down lining is moved out of your uterus, and this results in bleeding and cramping. The duration of a menstrual cycle varies–not only from individual to individual but also from month to month. In most cases (and without other interventions), periods will be a normal and semi-monthly part of your life from puberty to menopause. 

Your Period vs. PMS

Your menstrual cycle may often be preceded by something called “premenstrual syndrome,” or PMS. These symptoms could include:

  • Back pain
  • Soreness
  • Fatigue
  • Soreness of the breasts
  • Bloating
  • The development of acne
  • White or clear discharge from your vagina
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • A general sense or irritability

The number of these symptoms you experience–if any–could vary from month to month or be a fairly consistent signal that your period will arrive shortly. 

Common Questions After Your First Menstrual Cycle

It’s very common for many people to have questions about their menstrual cycle–whether it’s their first or fiftieth. Some of the most common questions about your first menstrual cycle usually include the following:

  • When do I start getting my period? In most cases, your period will start between the ages of 11-12. For some it’s a little earlier or a little later (a couple of years before and after this age range is not unusual).
    • How long do periods last? The typical period will last anywhere between 2-8 days. Your period may be very regular; or it may vary wildly. Things such as stress, eating habits, and other medications can impact the duration of your period, as well.
  • How much pain or discomfort do periods cause? This will vary from person to person and, often, from month to month. For example, menstrual cramps for some individuals can be light. For others, cramps can be severe and impact your daily activities. You should talk to your OBGYN or Midwife about managing pain and discomfort caused by periods and PMS.
  • How often will I get my period? The broad rule of thumb is that you’ll get your period every 28 days or so. However, there is a wide degree of variability there. Sometimes the gap between periods can be as much as 45 days. In other cases, your period may come sooner than you expect. It may also take up to six years after your first period for your menstrual cycle to normalize and become more predictable.
  • Should I use pads? And how often should I change them? Pads are a great way to keep menstrual bleeding from ruining your clothing. You’ll usually need to change your pads every four to eight hours depending on how heavy your bleeding is. A good rule of thumb is to change your pads whenever they feel full, uncomfortable, or wet.
  • Should I use pads or tampons? The answer to this question will likely depend on your preferences and daily activities. Tampons, for example, are wonderful for swimmers. Pads tend to be slightly more comfortable in a day-to-day setting–but this is somewhat subjective. If you don’t know which to choose, talk to your OBGYN or Midwife. Whether you use pads or tampons, however, do not use scented feminine products, as these can sometimes unbalance your vaginal pH levels and lead to infections.
  • What other menstrual products can or should I use? There are a wide variety of products available to help those who menstruate feel more comfortable. Newer examples of products include menstrual cups (which look like little silicone bells) and menstrual underwear (a pair of underwear with moisture wicking properties). These products are reusable, making them particularly appealing for those who are environmentally conscious. The broader point, however, is that there are options beyond tampons and pads, so you can find what works for you, your body, and your preferences. Talk to your OBGYN or Midwife if you’d like to know more about alternative menstrual products.
  • How much blood will I lose during my period? For most people, the very first periods tend to be quite light, in some cases no more than light spotting. As your hormones begin to ramp up, you may experience heavier flow. Bleeding on the heavier side isn’t necessarily something to be concerned about, but if you feel light-headed or get the sense that you’ve lost too much blood, talk to your OB GYN or midwife and if you happen to be at school, you can speak with your school nurse.

How to be Prepared for Your Next Period

It’s easy to be surprised by your period, even if it’s not your first one. That’s why many people will create what they call a “period kit.” This is a small kit of supplies that you carry with you wherever you go; you can keep it in your backpack or locker. A typical period kit may include:

  • Extra pads and tampons (enough of each to get you through a day)
  • A clean pair of underwear (just in case)
  • Wipes (for clean up)
  • Pain relievers, such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol (comment, motrin or advil are forms of ibuprofen that are more effective for menstrual cramp pain) (this can help with minor or moderate discomfort)

If your period catches you unawares, there are some things you can do. For example, you can create a temporary pad out of several layers of toilet paper. Placing that temporary pad in your underwear can help absorb blood just until you are able to replace it with a pad or tampon. 

If you’re in school when your first period occurs, ask to talk to the nurse. It’s okay–we can guarantee your nurses have been asked about this before! And they’ll likely have spare pads or tampons for you to use.

Other Changes in Your Body

For many, the first menstrual cycle is both a rite of passage and a metaphor for starting to grow up. So every family may celebrate differently (or not celebrate at all). From a medical standpoint, once your period occurs, you may want to talk to your doctor about your reproductive health. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that adolescents visit with a gynecologist for the first time between the ages of 13-15. 

As you grow up, you can discuss the changes in your body as well as how best to control your symptoms.

Talk to your OBGYN

Your first period can be exciting–and more than a little intimidating. But it’s important to remember that just around half of the world’s population of adults has gone through exactly what you’re going through. 

Talking to your OBGYN or Midwife can help you manage menstrual symptoms and associated discomfort. And talking about your reproductive health can also ensure you are able to prioritize your long-term wellness. For most, the first menstrual cycle transitions easily into a monthly period that you can manage and fold into your life.

If you have questions about your first menses–or your child’s first menses–schedule an appointment with an OBGYN or Midwife to discuss what to expect. Contact our Wilmette or Glenview offices today to schedule an appointment.

Christina Ragan

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Christina Ragan

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