Some girls now start their periods as early as eight, something which causes them great embarrassment as they are often in primary schools without facilities to help them. This failure to meet their personal needs may be at the root of later problems, when as young teenagers they become reluctant to seek contraceptive information and services.
Last October, working with two community paediatricians, Dr Fiona Finlay and Dr Rosemary Jones (both from Bath amp; West Community NHS Trust), we published a questionnaire in MIZZ magazine (which is aimed at girls aged 10 to 13) asking for their views on finding out about periods.
More than 260 girls completed the survey, of whom 64 per cent had started menstruating. The average age of onset was 12.74 years (range 8-15 years). Most girls had acquired their basic information from their parents (61 per cent) with 22 per cent citing their teacher as their primary source and 18 per cent first reading about periods in a book or magazine. (Some respondents cited several sources, so percentages add up to more than 100 per cent.) When asked where they would prefer to get their basic information, 71 per cent said parents and about 17 per cent said school, a book or magazine.
Of those who had not yet started their periods, 35 per cent said they felt worried that they would not be able to cope and wished they had more information. Of those who had started, 4 per cent (equivalent to more than one girl in every class) knew nothing about periods beforehand.
The girls' comments and specific questions are revealing. Many said they wished that more information was given earlier at school and that it should be more practical The top 10 period questions lHow will I know if I've started - what does it feel like?
lExactly how much blood will I lose - it scares me that I won't be able to cope?
* When you take a bath does the blood flow out and turn the water red?
* When you have a period, do you have to get up in the night?
* How do you know when you need to change a pad or tampon?
* If you're wearing a tampon, what happens when you go to the loo?
* What happens if I start at school?
* What can you use to stop period pains and how bad can they get?
* Will people be able to tell I've got my period?
* How will I tell my mum - I'd be too embarrassed to say anything?
Guidelines for teachers and schools to meet pupils' needs: * Introduce teaching on periods before year 6.
* Agree from the top (school governors down) that menstruation should be dealt with in a matter-of-fact way.
* Train and support teachers to help them feel comfortable with the topic.
* Emphasise practical coping skills - for instance, choosing what to use, how often to change sanitary protection, etc.
* Make all girls aware of how to get hold of sanitary towels in an emergency and how to dispose of them.
* Get hold of good, age-appropriate written material for children.
* Offer information and support to parents.
tricia kreitman Tricia Kreitman is the advice columnist for 'MIZZ', a qualified psychosexual counsellor, vice-chairman of Brook Advisory Centres and a member of the government Task Group on Sex and Relationships Education