Menstruation 101: Everything You Should Know About Your First Period

Whether you call it Aunt Flo, the red badge of courage, the crimson wave or simply your period, menstruation is a fact of life. Sooner or later, most healthy girls will experience their first period. It’s a totally common, natural experience that those of us with vaginas have shared since, well, the beginning of time. That doesn’t make it any less overwhelming or confusing when you’re experiencing your first period, though. If you’ve been wondering when it’ll happen, what to expect, and what you can do the make the whole menstruation thing a little easier, we’ve got all the information you’ll need.

What exactly is a period?

As you probably already know, getting your first period means that your body is now able to get pregnant and bear children. But the actual, physical, biological process that happens inside you once a month can be kind of hard to understand. Here’s the basics, according to WebMD:

“The menstrual cycle is the series of changes a woman’s body goes through to prepare for a pregnancy. About once a month, the uterus grows a new lining (endometrium) to get ready for a fertilized egg. When there is no fertilized egg to start a pregnancy, the uterus sheds its lining. This is the monthly menstrual bleeding (also called menstrual period) that women have from their early teen years until menopause, around age 50.”

Menstruation is controlled by hormones in your body.  Dr. Jenny M. Jaque, an obstetrician-gynecologist and one of the co-founders of explains:

” Your menstrual cycle is controlled by your endocrine system and is divided into three phases: the follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase. The follicular phase begins at the start of your period every month. During this phase, the hormone estrogen increases. This lining gets prepared to give a nice, cozy environment to a fertilized egg so a pregnancy can develop. This hormone stimulates the tissue that lines the inside of your uterus to grow and proliferate. This half of your cycle takes place during approximately day 1-13 of a 28-day menstrual cycle.”

Then, your ovaries get ready to release an egg. Dr. Jaque continues:

“Towards the middle of your cycle (around day 13), follicles in your ovaries begin to develop and grow due to the increase in different hormones secreted by your pituitary gland. Ovulation, or the release of an egg,  takes place around day 13-16 in a 28-day menstrual cycle.”

The last phase is called the luteal phase:

“During this time of your cycle, the hormone progesterone increases and helps prepare the lining of your uterus to carry a pregnancy.  If sperm does not fertilize the egg that is released [if you do not get pregnant], the tissue that lines your uterus created is shed and your period begins once again.”

Here’s a video that should provide a good visual aid, showing you where everything in your reproductive tract is located and what it does.

When do girls normally get their first period?

Girls can get their first period anywhere between ages eight or nine up until age sixteen. It’s likely that you’ll get your first period when you’re around eleven or twelve, but not is not true for everyone.

According to Dr. Jaque,  the age your mom or grandmother got her first period might actually affect when you get yours. She says,

“Usually, a girl can expect to start her period around the same time her mother or sister started their period, but that is not an absolute rule of thumb. There are different factors that can affect a girl’s cycle, including weight. For example, obesity leads to earlier periods and being underweight can delay your periods.”

But if your sister had her first period when she was ten and you’re twelve and haven’t seen any blood in your underwear yet, don’t get upset. You will get your period when your body is ready.

If you haven’t gotten your period by the time you are sixteen and you have developed breasts and pubic/underarm hair, there is a possibility you might have primary amenorrhea.  Primary amenorrhea means the absence of the onset of menstruation. You should visit your doctor, who will talk to you about your medical history and help you to figure out why you haven’t had a period yet. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, causes of primary amenorrhea might include eating disorders, genetics and other factors.

What should I expect for my first period?

Most people will have a very light period for their first time. It might even be just spots on your underwear, not enough to need a pad or a tampon. You might even only notice the blood when you are wiping after going to the bathroom. The blood might be pink, red or brown.

But if you have a heavy flow for your first period, that doesn’t mean that anything is wrong. A heavy flow for the first few periods is also within the range of normal.

How do I prepare for and deal with my first period?

This will be different for every girl, but there are a few things you should know if you’re waiting around for Aunt Flo to make her very first appearance.

The first thing I’d recommend is to learn about your reproductive system and your menstrual cycle. You know, by doing things like reading this very article! Gaining an understanding of what women’s bodies are naturally programmed to do can help you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally.

It’s helpful to talk to your friends and family about their experiences with menstruation. They might have some good tips, funny stories or awesome advice about what to buy, what to do, and how to deal. You could also talk to your mom or another trusted adult female, like a school nurse or a health teacher.

It’s also a good idea to carry some kind of menstrual product with you in your purse or backpack, just so you’ll be prepared if you start your period when you’re at school or an activity. If you happen to start when you don’t have anything on hand, you can usually ask a nearby woman if she can give you a pad or help you get one.

How can I tell when I’m going to get my period?

If you’re wondering “When will I get my period?” it’s helpful to know that a first period usually comes about two to two and a half years after you start developing breasts. Some girls will also notice a thick white discharge coming from their vagina up to six months before their first menstruation cycle starts. Dr. Christine O’Connor, a gynecologist at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, MD, says, “Some girls can have cramping in the pelvis or breast tenderness.  Some girls will have no symptoms at all.”

Signs and symptoms of your period coming include a stomach or backache, cramps in your abdomen or, sometimes, sore breasts. PMS, or pre-menstrual syndrome can also be an indication. This usually doesn’t happen before the very first time you menstruate, but you may notice that you experience cravings, mood swings or other common symptoms of PMS (or pre-menstrual syndrome) as you continue to get your period.

What will my period feel like?

Your period will feel like liquid flowing out of your vagina. At first, you might get it confused with pee, but after a while you will be able to distinguish between the different sensations. Some days the flow will be heavy and some days it will be light, depending on where you are in your cycle and what is normal for your body. The sanitary product you choose to use (pads, tampons, etc) might affect how much you feel your flow.

It might feel or look like you’re bleeding a lot, but during an average menstrual cycle, a woman will lose about an ounce of blood. That’s less than one-eighth of a normal-sized water bottle!

How long will my period last?

This is different for every girl or woman. The average is about a week, but periods can last anywhere from three to eight days. The way the blood looks and feels might change throughout the time you are bleeding, too. A period often starts off as very light pink or brown, then goes to a thicker, darker red, then ends up lighter again towards the end.

How often will I get a period?

About every month, more or less. Menstrual cycles can vary widely and anything from 21 to 35 days is considered normal, according to the Mayo Clinic.  Dr. O’Connor says, “28 days is just an average.  From month to month the exact number can It is also common to skip cycles here and there the first year or two. ”

In other words, don’t be too upset if your period isn’t regular for the first few months. This is normal. Once you’ve been menstruating for awhile, your body will fall into the right rhythm. If you are sexually active and you miss your period, it might be a good idea to talk to your parents or a doctor, just in case you might be pregnant.

If you want, you can mark the days you bleed on a calendar, a datebook or in your diary or journal. If you have a phone, there are a lot of great period tracker apps that can help you record when you menstruate. My favorite is iPeriod, but My Period Tracker is also fun and easy to use.

How soon after I start my first period can I get pregnant?

This can vary from girl to girl. Dr. Jaque says:

“It can take up to two years for a girl to start ovulating every month (which can lead to pregnancy) after starting their period. A girl can ovulate in an unpredictable pattern any time after starting her period, which is why one should never gamble and have unprotected sex once they start their period.”

If you are sexually active, you should be using some kind of birth control (condoms, the pill, or something else) to avoid pregnancy.

What do I do if I get cramps?

You’ve probably heard older women or girls talking about period cramps. They’re pretty common and they’re definitely not fun, although cramp intensity and frequency can vary from person to person. Some people only get cramps just before they start menstruating each month, some have them throughout their period, and some people do not have them at all.

You can talk to your parents, school nurse or doctor if you’d like some pain relief for your cramps. Over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin, ibuprofen or Midol will help. Taking a bath or using a heating pad might also provide some relief. You can also check our article about some weird, yet effective remedies for menstrual cramps!

What kind of menstrual products should I use for my first period?

There are three main kinds of personal care products that you can use once you start menstruating: Pads, tampons and menstrual cups. For the first time, many girls use pads, but there’s no reason why you can’t use whatever you are most comfortable with.

Pads, sometimes called sanitary pads or sanitary napkins, are absorbent items that you put inside your underwear to soak up the flow of blood. The ones you can buy in the drugstore are usually made out of some combination of plastic and cotton, but you can buy reusable fabric ones if you’d like. You should change a pad every few hours.

Pads cannot be flushed down the toilet. To dispose of a pad, you can wrap it in the wrapper it came in or in toilet paper and place it in the trash. Many public restrooms have areas that are specifically designed for pad or tampon disposal.

Tampons are basically a soft mass of fabric (usually cotton) that absorbs the blood from your period . You insert a tampon into your vagina, where it stays and absorbs your menstrual flow. Tampons have strings attached, so you can easily pull them out of your vagina when you are ready for a new one. They come in several different varieties, including with and without an applicator. You can also buy them in different absorbencies, including light, regular, super and super plus. Many women like tampons because they are less messy than pads and because they make it easier to continue doing physical activities like swimming, dancing and sports.

Here’s a great video that explains how to insert a tampon, from blogger SaphiraFashion:

It might feel a little funny or awkward the first time you put in a tampon in, but wearing one shouldn’t hurt. There are detailed instructions on insertion inside each and every box of tampons. If you feel comfortable, you might also ask your mom, your sister, a close female relative or a friend to help you or show you how to insert one.

You should only wear a tampon for four to eight hours at a time. You might have heard the words “toxic shock syndrome” in relation to tampon use. Toxic shock syndrome is a dangerous illness that’s been associated with using tampons. It is caused by bacteria and has been shown to be linked to cases where women left tampons inside their bodies for long periods of time. It was more common during the 1980s, when tampons with a higher level of absorbency were sold. Although TSS is very rare and is becoming rarer all the time, it’s still something to be aware of if you plan to use tampons.

Some people say that if a girl uses a tampon before she’s had penetrative intercourse for the first time, she won’t be a virgin anymore. This is because inserting a tampon for the first time can sometimes disturb your hymen. A hymen is a thin fringe skin-like tissue that is present in the vaginas of some women and girls. Not everyone has one. Hymens can break for many reasons, including horseback riding, playing sports, or just by living your life as a female.

In some cultures, whether or not you have a hymen can indicate whether you are a virgin or not. Using a tampon does not affect whether or not you are a virgin. Virginity is about sexual contact and/or intercourse, not the physical condition of your vulva or vagina.

Some tampons can be flushed down the toilet, but others cannot. If you’re worried about clogging the pipes or your toilet, you can always wrap a used one up and throw it in the trash.


This is what a menstrual cup looks like. Photo: GreenColander on Flickr

Menstrual cups are small vessels, usually made of silicone, that you insert inside your vagina to hold the blood from your menstrual flow.  They are bigger than tampons and they work in a different way. Menstrual cups sit up against your cervix (the tip of your uterus) to catch the blood. Instead of throwing them away when you’re done, like you would with a pad or tampon, you take the menstrual cup out and rinse it in the sink. Unlike tampons and pads, they can be worn for up to 12 hours.

Some popular brands of menstrual cups are the DivaCup, Mooncup and Lunette. Personally, I like using a menstrual cup because it’s reusable. I save money on pads and tampons and I contribute less waste to the world as a whole.

If you happen to get some blood on your clothing while you’re having your period, it’s not a big deal. Cold water is great at getting blood out; Simply rinse and squeeze once you’re able to take your underwear off.  If any blood remains, a simple stain remover should take care of it.

Some women even have designated “period underwear” which they wear only when they’re menstruating. These are generally pairs of underwear that are already old or stained. That way, it doesn’t really matter if they get a little bit (or even a lot) of blood on them during a period.

How should I react if I have an embarrassing first period experience?

As someone who got her first period on a rental car shuttle in the Orlando airport after a trip to Disney World, I speak from experience when I say: Stay calm, stay cool and if you can, laugh it off.

Whether you leaked all over the back of your pants in front of your entire math class or if your dog dug your pad out of the trash while your boyfriend was on the couch, I promise that no one cares as much about what just happened as you do. Seriously. While it might seem like the end of the world now, anyone who was witness to your embarrassing period story will probably forget it sooner than you think.

And believe me, it would be really hard to find any woman who doesn’t have an embarrassing period story. Pretty much everyone has gone through some kind of menstruation-related embarrassment. It sucks, but the thing to remember is that it’s only one period, one day and one event.

Subsequent periods are bound to be better! Soon, having your period will become more normal and a lot less stressful and embarrassing. And remember, there are also actually a few good things about having your period!

If you’ve ever wondered what guys think about periods, this video from Gurl should be able to shed a little light on the situation:

How can I talk to my parents about my period?

Families are all different. You may feel comfortable talking to your parents about your period, or you may not. Your parent or guardian may have already talked to you about your period, or they might not have. Either way, it’s a great step to inform yourself about your own body and its cycles.

If you feel nervous or embarrassed bringing up the subject, you might try talking to just one of your parents alone, without siblings or anyone else present. You could also write a letter or a note. It is important to let someone know once you’ve started menstruation, just so your parent or guardian can help you get supplies if you need them.

How do I know if my period is normal or not?

If you’re asking yourself “Is my period normal?” remember that “normal” is different for every person. Your menstrual cycle can take up to two years to regulate itself. You might get a period for three months in a row and then not have one for a month or two. This isn’t necessarily anything to be concerned about.

If you are worried that you have an irregular menstrual cycle, you should talk to your doctor. Your cycle can be affected by all sorts of things, including your diet, your weight, stress and the amount of physical activity you participate in. The most important thing to do is to pay attention to your body from month to month and learn what is normal and healthy for you. If there’s cause for concern, then make an appointment with your doctor. 

Do you have any more questions about getting your first period, the menstrual cycle or how to deal with menstruation in general? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get your questions answered ASAP.

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  • Just me

    I got spotting last night, thought it was my period so I put a pad on and went to bed then I woke up and realised it was just spotting. Does spotting mean I will get my period soon?

  • Kenna Kingzett

    I don’t know if i got my period, but i think i did. I’m 12 years old, siza 32a bra, dont shave yet (but i probably should) and weigh 80lbs. last week there as this red brown stuff in my underwear. and i was positive it was my period, so i put a pad in a in went to bed. Nothing for a straight 5 days. just yesterday, i had a tiny bit if brown stuff in my undies, and so then i put in a pantiliner and went to dance. when i got home from dance an hour later and there was some more brown stuff. i took a shower, put in another pantiliner and went to bed. Now, it’s morning and there is nothing. again. is it my period? what should i do?

  • Jennifer hopper

    My daughter is 10 and started her period last week. She has no pubic or underarm hair. Just big boob’s a size A36. She bled for 3 days with what I would say is average then about 4 days ago she started bleeding really heavy and passing big cloths and is soaking through a super long pad about every hour. Im concerned that their is something serious wrong. Her doctor said it’s normal I’m not sure that it is. Am I overeating

  • TheLittlePrincess 3168

    I’m 11 (12 in a month or so) and I keep getting loads of really bad cramps. I have tons of pubic & underarm hair (even more on my legs/arms) and my breasts are so embarrassingly big I get laughed at when getting changed at school. I have had discharge for ages. I weigh about 25-30 pounds, and my height is currently about 1m 30-35cm. (I am in a growth spurt). I have had everything but my period. Help?
    (I also have stress-induced health issues like acid reflux).

  • Adriana Ramirez

    I’m 12 years old and got my first period yesterday. I have not bled in about 16 hours. Is that bad?

  • Caroline Day

    I’m 12 100 pounds 5’4 and I got cramps a bout a week ago my friend told me that your period comes 10 days after you first get cramps I’ve been getting discharge for almost a year, is my friend right?

  • Elena S.L.

    i am a week away from being 15 and have not yet started my period. I noticed an increased amount of discharge in my underwear. Iv’e had discharge for a 2 or possibly 3 years now.I’m wondering if this is a sign that I will get my period soon or not. I started growing breasts around the end of 6 grade. I do have some underarm hair and pubic hair. I am around 90 pounds, 5 foot 1, I just started cross country season and outrigger canoe paddling season this year. should i be concerned?

    • Hola

      Your not starting your period because your under weight most girls that are overeturned weight get there periods faster but I’m not saying to just go eat… I would go see a doctor and just ask him about it
      If you would like

  • Tayy

    I’d appreciate if you guys do an in-depth on how birth control pills prevent pregnancy. I have an idea but I’m not sure exactly how it works. If you do OMG love you guys forever.

  • Rayna

    Sorry, my reply was to Anon. ANON LOOK AT MY COMMENTS BECAUSE THEY ARE FOR YOU!!

  • Lissa

    Ah, embarrassing period stories! We all have one (or several, if you are anything like me). But trust me, you’ll learn to laugh it off.

  • Anon

    I’ve been 14 for a Month and haven’t started my period yet. My mum started at 12. I have had a small amount of discharge for well over a year now, maybe two years. I have all the other signs of puberty. Is this normal?

    • macky

      I’m no expert but a friend of mine started her period at 16 and she was doing fine, so I guess it happens. ^^

    • Rayna

      I had the same thing. But mine got heavier and darker right before I had my first period. It might be the same for you. Look out for that.