Coaching a Young Girl Through Her First Period at an Airport Bathroom

by | Aug 19, 2020 | Parenting Teens | 18 comments

Is your Daughter Prepared for Her First Period?

Is your daughter prepared for her first period?

And what happens when her first period takes her by surprise?

I’m going to invite Joanna, my co-author of our upcoming The Great Sex Rescue, to share a story of talking through bathroom stalls to a young girl in tears.

When I was a little girl, I loved flying.

Many subsequent trips to airports have stripped me of my exuberant affection for planes… except at Christmas. Carols play over the intercoms, everything is decorated, and the airport population changes from business men to adorable kids bedecked in pajamas and dogs being taken along for the ride.

We were travelling to see my husband’s family for New Years one year, and I was filled with Christmas cheer. Just before boarding, I found myself doing the requisite preflight bathroom run. I sat down in the stall and there was a large floppy dolly on the floor in the stall next to mine. Curious.

I heard a little girl on the phone with her mom. “I think I cut myself, mommy,” she kept saying, as mom tried to reassure her.

I finished in the bathroom and washed my hands. When I was little and we were in public my mom’s rule was that if we ever needed help, we should find another mom. And now I was in the mom squad.

I walked over to the stall door and knocked. “Do you need any help?” I asked, trying to sound reassuring.

“No,” came a little voice.

Her mother asked her who it was. “Somebody,” she said.

I identified myself as a mom. Nothing from the girl, but the mom on the line seemed interested.

Another woman walked up to me and asked if I had first aid training. I did not, and she did. I happily bowed out and let someone who knew what they were doing step in. Another woman in the bathroom told me she’d been listening longer filled me in on some details: the little girl had gotten her first period and she was travelling with her dad. She was embarrassed and confused and she didn’t want her dad to know what was happening.

The woman with first aid training sprang into gear. She said she had pads in her purse. Another woman had small panty liners. A third had a tampon. And so we created a “stone soup” of period supplies and the woman who knew how to do first aid carefully and kindly talked the little girl through how to put in a pad. One woman in the bathroom knew she was on the same flight as the girl, and so she offered her help while they were flying.

I knew the situation was under control and I had a flight leaving any minute, so I thanked them both and headed back to my gate and my own little girl.

I’ve thought a lot about that interaction in the days since.

On the one hand, it was a beautiful moment of female community springing into action when a little one needed help. I’m proud of that and I think that we need to look out for each other, just as we ended up having a semi-circle of concerned women surrounding a little girl in the stall.

On the other hand, though, what could have been an empowering coming of age moment for this little one was scary.

Her mom wasn’t there, which couldn’t be helped, but she clearly had no sense of what menstruation is or how to deal with it. Since I never saw her, I don’t know how old she was, but from the dolly on the floor, I suspect she was quite young.

And here’s the thing: the start of menstruation is happening younger and younger on average.

There are a lot of risk factors: obesity is a big one. Another is toxic stress, such as that caused by experiencing domestic violence or not having a father figure. There is some evidence that girls are protected from early puberty onset by eating a high-fibre diet. And there may be some other environmental and lifestyle factors as well, but they’re hard to measure and poorly understood.

In general, girls get their periods about a year and a half after breast buds start to form (when the nipples enlarge and start to stick out and breast tissue forms right around the nipples; what we used to call “cone boobs”).

So what can you do as a parent to help keep this kind of story from happening to your little one? You can do what you can to delay its onset by providing her a healthy diet, ensuring she gets enough sleep, has father figures in her life, and developing open lines of communication so that she will confide in you.

The other main takeaway is that you need to have age-appropriate discussions about periods and puberty with your little girl.

The first sign of puberty is breast budding and pubic hair, so if you see those signs early, we’d recommend starting to talk about periods and sending your little one with a pad in her bag so that she’s prepared.

Having those conversations is hard, which is why Sheila, Katie, Rebecca, and Sheldon created The Whole Story. It’s a great launch pad for you to talk through actual practical advice for girls in an age-appropriate way. I especially appreciate that they talk through things like how to swim while on your period. The courses are custom by age and gender and they’re a really great overview. And there’s also an activity where you can make an emergency kit for your daughter with her!

And, of course, the boys’ version helps boys understand what they go through during puberty, and introduces them to periods as well.

You’re telling me WHAT goes WHERE?!

Talking about sex with your kids doesn’t always go smoothly. 

That’s why we created The Whole Story, our online course that walks parents through the tough conversations and does the hard parts for you!

With so many girls getting their first periods at 11, 10, or even 9, we need to be prepared.

Were you prepared for your first period? Did you know what was going to happen? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Joanna Sawatsky


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Joanna Sawatsky

Author at Bare Marriage

Joanna Sawatsky has a Masters in Public Health and is a trained microbiologist, epidemiologist, and biostatistician. A Pittsburgh native, she headed north to Saskatchewan to marry her Mennonite prince charming, Josiah. After living in the far Arctic while running stats for the books, they now live with their two little girls in Alberta. ENFJ 1w2.

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  1. Mb

    I was 14 and the last of all my friends to get my period. I knew all about it (was in grade 9 so had already done home talks and years of school sex Ed talks) but it still freaked me out because no one like to just see straight up blood in their underwear as a surprise. I’m a mom to all boys so I’m glad I don’t have to deal with period hormones or stains (I’m bad with both. Lol) but it’s important to teach your boys about periods and that they aren’t gross or icky either. As a mom who has recently had a hysterectomy and won’t have a period anymore, I’m trying to brainstorm ways to normalize periods for my boys when I won’t be bleeding anymore. My 12 year old is pretty good about it because I’ve talked to him a lot about stuff but I’m concerned how to do it more for my younger boys who have no idea. Tips welcome! But I just wanted to say even if you have just boys, you should be normalizing this too so you don’t have the dumb kid who tells girls to hold it in or makes fun of them for it being gross.

    • Molly

      My son was 11 when my periods started back up when my youngest was born. I explained everything, because my kids don’t know what a closed bathroom door means. I told him that every cell in our body needs blood (and why, for oxygen and nutrients), and babies need it too. So every month, my body makes special blood for the baby. If there is no baby, my body gets rid of the blood, which is a period. It looks scarier than it is. It’s just like his body not needing blood that comes out when he has a cut.
      His only question was, “does the baby EAT the blood?”
      I’ve also explained birth, because i was convinced i would have my last at home. Thankfully i didn’t!
      My son also understands that i can be moody and grumpy. I had a sticker on my fridge that said “your wife is delicate like a bomb, not a flower.” He thought it was hilarious and now when I’m grumpy he asks if I’m delicate like a bomb. And he handle me with care. I wish my husband was as in tune lol.

    • Jane Eyre

      Just a thought: could you keep a small stash of pads and tampons in your guest bathroom for women guests to use if they are caught by surprise? Add in other things someone might need while away from home (those one-time use dental floss things, Advil, container of face wipes, nail clippers) and tell the kids that these things are there for people who might need them. A guest gets something stuck in his teeth at dinner, he can use the floss. A guest is sweaty; he can use a face wipe. A guest gets her period and doesn’t have her own supplies; she can use a tampon.

      • Kristen

        This is a great idea, Jane! When I was a manager, I actually had a similar conversation with my employer. He’d paid to have an expensive first aid kit installed by the office, but after I had to let an employee leave one day to go to the store and buy tampons after her period started earlier than she’d expected, I asked my employer if he would be okay with me buying some pads and tampons to store for women in the same situations. He told me that was a great idea and gave me the green light. I’ve had other male employers get all awkward and embarrassed if they found out I was on my period, so I thought this guy’s reaction was cool.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Here’s my pet peeve about guest bathrooms. Use a CLOSED garbage can with a lid. I remember as a teen using the guest bathroom with an empty and pristine wastebasket, and wondering what to do with the used pad. I didn’t want to announce that I was on my period, but it was super awkward. So sometimes you just wad it up and put it back in your backpack to throw out at home!

        • Alissa

          Or guest bathrooms that don’t have a trash can at all!! Worst thing ever! Like who are these people? 🙄

  2. Molly

    My 10 year old daughter has had breast buds for about 8 months. She’s really skinny, but most women in my family have bigger chests. I weighed 125 when i met her dad but i was aC cup. she’s totally in denial. We have had talks about periods though. I’ve tried talking positively about them, because without periods there are no babies. I honestly think it’s a beautiful part of being a woman. but i know it’s annoying too, and scary.

    • Susie Westmoreland

      I was eleven. My mom had talked with me and my school had shown the filmstrip (!!!) and had the nurse talk to us as a class, boys separately from the girls. Even so, I just couldn’t believe this was for real. I thought something was wrong with me for sure.

  3. Meghan

    My 3 year old daughter is incredibly curious so we’ve already had discussions about Mommy’s period. She sees me change my pads and she knows to be extra gentle with Mommy because my entire body is very tender for the first day or two. So far she seems pretty chill with the fact that her mother bleeds every month. She’s way more interested in the patterns on the wrapper.

  4. Young Beginning

    I was still 11 (one month before my 12th birthday) at my grandma’s house and no supplies. We had to resort to using a rag, safety pinned to my underwear. So glad that periods are now behind me (at age 58) but it wasn’t a great start back in the summer of 1974!

  5. Krista

    I started during Gr. 9 right at the end of the school day, with a hour bus ride ahead of me, and although I knew what it was and wasn’t alarmed, I was also unprepared. I had to shove some toilet paper in my underwear, go out to the bus and quietly ask my friend for a pad. She didn’t have one but was able to track down our French teacher who got me a pad. The whole ordeal delayed our bus…for everyone. Thankfully there weren’t a lot of kids on it.
    This is why I’m hyper aware of when my daughter gets hers for the first time. She’s starting Gr. 10 and still doesn’t have it. Praying it happens at a better time for her.

  6. Emma

    I was pretty lucky. I started my periods about a month after turning 11, and it was just a small amount that didn’t even look like blood. Went to my mom, “what’s this?”, “oh, you started your period”. Simple. Straight forward. I had older sisters (8 and 10 years older) whom I shared a bathroom with (so kind of hard to hide anything there) and my mom had not had a good first period experience, thanks to her mother not informing her, so she did her best to prepare us.
    I’llbe honest, I find it hard to understand people who have not told their 8-10 year old girls even what a period is. I was on a missions trip once, and the family with us had a couple of daughters that age and they had no idea what periods were. Didn’t even know what the word meant (in that context). And we (5 late teens-early/mid-twenties women) were sharing a bathroom with them. In a country where you can’t flush toilet paper. I’m guessing that either mom had to explain to them (and we just never learned about it) or they assumed my friend was having a lot more nose bleeds than she actually did (there were a few).

  7. Em

    I was prepared for it to happen, but unprepared when it happened…lots of toilet paper and paranoid bathroom trips….
    What I was not remotely prepared for was cervical fluid, which I got a LOT of before my period. I was so confused, I thought blood was supposed to come out of me not this weird clear stuff.

    • Miss Lindy

      Absolutely! My mom prepared me for the period itself, but ovulation fluid freaked me out! I did a lot of research on my own, but sadly didn’t understand the whole cycle until I was 19 and dating for the first time. My boyfriend grew up with a big sister and in his family natural bodily functions weren’t hush hush like they were in mine. Awkward!

    • Natalie

      SO TRUE!!! Just as some women bleed heavier than others, some women have more cervical mucus than others. From the women I’ve talked to over the years, I think I’m one of those who has a large amount of discharge for almost all the days I’m not menstruating (with a different consistency depending on the stage of ovulation I’m in); I’ve just always been that way. The marks it would make in my underwear was very embarrassing for me especially while I was still living at home since my mom did my laundry till I left for college. Thankfully my mom introduced me to panty liners at a young age. I can’t imagine not using them daily.

  8. Cynthia

    There are some genetic factors that can lead to early puberty, like congenital adrenal hyperplasia (which my daughter has in a mild form). While my daughter did gain some weight around age 5, it was the condition that led to the weight gain rather than vice versa. She ended up having a massive growth spurt and got her period just after her 8th birthday. (Her growth then stopped, she slimmed down and is quite petite now.). We had “the talk” when I saw that she was starting to develop, so that she wouldn’t be scared.

  9. Alissa

    I started my period at like 16 or 17 and my mom had made sure I was prepared. Because I was much older I was also well prepared to deal with it physically/mentally etc. But something that’s frustrated me is that my mom NEVER told me (that I can recall anyways) that there would be other discharge of varying textures and in varying quantities throughout the month. And because I’d had a yeast infection at like age 8, I thought something was wrong with me (even though I wasn’t experiencing any itching etc.). For years I wasn’t certain what was normal when it came to other discharge even though I tried to look up info online. In more recent years in talking to friends about non-period discharge, all of them said they weren’t warned about this either. As I don’t have kids, I’ve not looked through your puberty course for girls, but I really hope you talk about how there can be other discharge during the month and that’s normal too.
    As a child/teen I also learned about sex and saving it for marriage (conservative Christian) but not really how my body would react in other situations. The first time I snuggled with a guy as a late teen, I didn’t understand at first why I was getting “turned on down there” (sorry for being graphic 😬). Later in my mid-twenties when I first started dating this guy and he would touch my lower back, give me a tight hug, or if we were snuggling next to each other on the couch I’d often get “turned-on.” As someone who was trying to honour God in this relationship, my body’s reactions honestly felt like betrayal almost. Like why is my body “getting ready for sex” when that’s not where this touch is headed and I didn’t feel like the touching was “too hot n heavy,” just affectionate. My body’s reaction felt shameful to me, like I shouldn’t be reacting this way. The reactions did lessen as we dated longer and I became used to being touched affectionately by a guy.
    I’m in my early 30’s and not dating anyone now, (although I wish I was haha).
    And I’m still not sure how to deal with this type of scenario exactly – like how to think about it without feeling like it’s a shameful reaction. Like maybe it’s my body telling me that what I’m doing is not okay until marriage—but it can happen from just simple touching that’s not sexual per se, so doesn’t seem wrong. It seems like a normal part of a balanced relationship.
    No one ever talks about stuff like this. 🤷🏻‍♀️


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