When a girl first gets her period can impact the timing of her first sexual encounter, according to a new study out of Columbia University (published in the journal PLOS ONE). But parents, maybe you'd better sit down, because that's not all. Researchers also say the onset of menstruation can affect the timing of a girl's first pregnancy, her vulnerability to contracting some sexually transmitted infections, and even the age she marries.
"Menstruation marks the beginning of a girl's reproductive life and is an important indicator of girls' physical, nutritional, and reproductive health, yet it is often overlooked in public health," commented Marni Sommer, DrPH, MSN.
Her team looked at girls in Malawi, South Africa, Nepal, Jamaica, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India, and Bangladesh for this study, but it's important to note that similar outcomes have been observed in high-income countries such as the U.S. Overall, the research shows that early menstruation, which is defined as before the age of 12, is found to be associated with early sexual debut, experiences of sexual advances from older men, early pregnancy and childbirth, sexual risk-taking, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
"Ultimately this reinforces the importance of including age of menarche in many more studies," Dr. Sommer said.
Of course, we can't control when our daughters will begin their periods. But for parents, the takeaway seems to be that we need to be having conversations with our girls about sex earlier rather than later.
Ahem, this can be uncomfortable territory for many parents (and kids!). Here are some tips from Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say, for approaching what can definitely be a delicate topic:
Colleen O'Grady, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter, says her daughter started menstruating at age 10 and was taller than her by age 11. "She was tall, blonde, and well developed—I can tell you it wasn't easy," she told Parents.com.
O'Grady, who has more than 25 years experience as a family therapist, offers the following tips for parents in a similar situation:
If you still aren't sure how to have the conversations you need to be having, consider involving your child's pediatrician. Most importantly, remember you don't have to do it perfectly. What you don't want is for your daughter to learn about sex from friends first. Instead, be the one who she can trust and confide in for many years to come!