Being female rocks! …but it can also be super weird and confusing, especially when it comes to that time of the month. Students have asked us tons of questions about the menstrual cycle, from how it works to how to manage it. So here you go, the answers to your Menstrual Cycle FAQ!
A period is just one phase of a whole month-long process called the menstrual cycle. This cycle begins during puberty, and the point of it all is to prepare the body to be able to have a baby.
During pregnancy, a baby grows inside an organ called the uterus (the womb). The uterus has a soft, cushiony lining made up of blood and tissue that gives the baby a cozy environment to live in as well as nutrients. If a woman isn’t pregnant, every month her uterus will shed that lining, and the lining exits out the body through the vagina. This shedding is what we call the period.
The period is the first phase of the menstrual cycle, and usually lasts about five days (could be longer or shorter–every woman is different!). After the lining sheds, the uterus begins to build up a new lining for a new potential pregnancy. Then about halfway through the cycle, one of the two glands called the ovaries will release an egg. This egg is half of the equation that creates a baby. That egg will travel through the fallopian tube into the uterus. If sperm cells from the male body are present inside the female body from sexual activity, the egg could be fertilized by a sperm cell. Those two cells together create the baby!
If the egg doesn’t get fertilized, no pregnancy happens. The egg just gets reabsorbed back into the body. That lining of the uterus keeps building back up, and at the end of the cycle the body realizes that it’s not pregnant, and gets rid of that lining. Then the whole thing starts all over again, and happens about every month until a woman does get pregnant or gets older and stops having a cycle (around age 40-50).
On average, girls get their first period around age 11-12. But that’s just the average! Some girls get their periods around age 9 or 10, and some much later at 14 or 15. Athletes often start their periods later because their bodies are under more stress. Genetics, diet, and exercise habits all play a role in when a female begins this process.
Nope! Because that baby needs the uterine lining to grow in, the body keeps it all throughout the pregnancy. One of the first signs that a woman is pregnant is that she stops having her period. She may experience some very light bleeding early on in pregnancy, but it would be much lighter than normal. If she experiences heavy bleeding during pregnancy, she should see a doctor immediately. After the baby is born, her menstrual cycle will eventually return to normal, but it could take several months, especially if she’s breastfeeding.
Everyone’s cycles are different. The average length of a whole menstrual cycle is 28 days, but it’s considered normal to have cycles that last between 21-35 days. Also, the period itself is usually around 5 days, but it could be a little shorter or longer as well. It’s totally normal for cycles to be long after a girl first starts her period. After a couple of years, her cycle should become more regular.
If a woman’s cycles are still shorter than 21 days or longer than 35, she should let her doctor know. She should also talk to her doctor if she has very heavy and/or painful periods. Many women have medical issues that affect their cycles, so the doctor can test for these and provide treatment if possible. Doctors are totally used to helping women with all kinds of reproductive health issues, so we don’t need to be embarrassed about talking to them or other trusted adults about our bodies.
Typically, no. It’s very unlikely. But because ovulation (when the ovary releases the egg) can happen before a girl has her first period, if she had sex during that time, it’s possible that she could get pregnant.
There is no “best product,” because everyone is different! Some women love tampons because they keep all the period flow inside the body, and they can go swimming or play sports more easily. Some women prefer pads because tampons make them uncomfortable. There are also reusable products, like a menstrual cup or cloth pad. Menstrual cups are a soft, flexible cup that’s inserted into the vagina like a tampon, but can be washed and reused to save money and the environment. Cloth pads work just like a disposable pad, but can also be washed a reused.
Try out different products to see what you like, and ask your friends and family for recommendations!
Ask a trusted adult for help! Whether that’s your mom, stepmom, aunt, grandma, or a friend’s parent, there’s an older lady in your life that can walk through this process with you. Half of the world’s population goes through this, so don’t feel weird reaching out! With practice and encouragement from your friends and family, you’ll get used to how your body works. Our bodies are awesome, and we don’t have to be afraid of them!
By Kath Crane