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Overweight Girls Start Periods At Earlier Age

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

It’s nothing new that girls are getting younger and younger when they have their first period, but experts worry that the current obesity epidemic could be fueling that trend.

Overweight or obese girls get their first period months earlier than their normal-weight peers, according to a Danish study.

Early-onset menstruation is linked to later health problems such as breast cancer, said Sarah Keim, a researcher at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

Girls who get their period early in life are also more likely to have sex sooner than their peers, Keim added, which increases the risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

About 17 percent of American kids and teens are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the study, researchers used information on body mass index (BMI) — a measure of weight in relation to height — and age at first period from about 3,200 Danish girls born between 1984 and 1987.

The girls started their period just after they had turned 13, on average, which is about half a year later than in the U.S. Keim said part of the reason for this difference may be that African-Americans tend to start their periods before white girls.

On average, a girl got her period about 25 days earlier for every point her BMI increased. For a female of about average height and weight, a one-point change in BMI is equivalent to about six pounds.

Overweight and obese girls, for example, got their period three to five months before normal-weight girls, said Anshu Shrestha, a graduate student at UCLA School of Public Health, who worked on the study.

There has been past research showing a link between BMI and when girls start menstruating. However, since this study was done more recently, it shows that the link is holding up in today’s generation, Keim said.

The researchers also found that a girl’s mother’s weight was related to when her daughter started menstruating, but less so than earlier work had hinted.

For every point her mother’s BMI when pregnant went up, the girl’s period came about a week earlier, according to the new study, which was published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.

Keim said the Danish findings reinforce the importance of keeping a healthy weight.

“It’s important for your entire life, starting from very early on,” she told Reuters Health. “And it can even affect your children’s health.”

Talking to your daughter about Menstruation.

Most girls begin to menstruate when they’re about 12, but periods are possible as early as age 8. That’s why explaining menstruation early is so important. But menstruation is an awkward subject to talk about, especially with preteen girls, who are often embarrassed by this discussion.

So what’s the best way to approach this ticklish topic?

If your daughter asks questions about menstruation, answer them openly and honestly. Provide as many details as you think she needs at the time. It’s OK to let your daughter set the pace, but don’t let her avoid the topic entirely. If she’s not asking questions as she approaches the preteen years, it’s up to you to start talking about menstruation.

Don’t plan a single tell-all discussion. Instead, talk about the various issues – from basic hygiene to fear of the unknown – in a series of short conversations. Consider it part of a continuing conversation on how the human body works. Remember, your daughter needs good information about the menstrual cycle and all the other changes that puberty brings. If her friends are her only source of information, she may hear some nonsense and take it for fact.

To introduce the subject of menstruation, you might ask your daughter what she knows about puberty. Clarify any misinformation and ask what questions she might have. It may be helpful to time your conversations with the health lessons and sex education your daughter is receiving in school, or you could broach the subject before a routine doctor’s appointment. You can tell your daughter that the doctor may ask her whether she’s gotten her period yet. Then ask if she has any questions or concerns about menstruation.

Girls might prefer to learn about menstruation from a female family member, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you’re a single father and you’re not comfortable talking about menstruation, you might delegate these conversations to a female relative or friend. The key is to make sure the information is relayed somehow.

The biology of menstruation is important, but most girls are more interested in practical information about periods. Your daughter may want to know when it’s going to happen, what it’s going to feel like and what she’ll need to do when the time comes.

- What is menstruation? Menstruation means a girl’s body is physically capable of becoming pregnant. Each month, one of the ovaries releases an egg. This is called ovulation. At the same time, hormonal changes prepare the uterus for pregnancy. If ovulation takes place and the egg isn’t fertilized, the lining of the uterus sheds through the vagina. This is a period.

- Does it hurt? Many girls have cramps, typically in the lower abdomen, when their periods begin. Cramps can be dull and achy or sharp and intense. Exercise, a heating pad or an over-the-counter pain reliever may help ease any discomfort.

- When will it happen? No one can tell exactly when a girl will get her first period. Typically, however, girls begin menstruating about two years after their breasts begin to develop. Many girls experience a thin, white vaginal discharge about one year before menstruation begins.

- What should I do? Explain how to use sanitary pads or tampons. Many girls are more comfortable starting with pads, but it’s OK to use tampons right away. Remind your daughter that it may take some practice to get used to inserting tampons. Stock the bathroom with various types of sanitary products ahead of time. Encourage your daughter to experiment until she finds the product that works best for her.

- What if I’m at school? Encourage your daughter to carry a few pads or tampons in her backpack or purse, just in case. Many school bathrooms have coin-operated dispensers for these products. The school nurse also may have supplies.

- Will everyone know that I have my period? Assure your daughter that pads and tampons aren’t visible through clothing. No one needs to know that she has her period.

- What if blood leaks onto my pants? Offer your daughter practical suggestions for covering up stains until she’s able to change clothes, such as tying a sweatshirt around her waist. You might also encourage your daughter to wear dark pants or shorts when she has her period, just in case.

Your daughter may worry that she’s not normal if she starts having periods before, or after, friends her age do, or if her periods aren’t like those of her friends. But menstruation varies with the individual. Some girls have periods that last two days, while others have periods that last more than a week. It can even vary this drastically from month to month in the same girl. The amount of blood lost each month can vary, too, usually from 4 to 12 teaspoons (about 20 to 60 milliliters).

It’s also common for girls to have irregular periods for the first year or two. Some months might even go by without a period. Once your daughter’s cycle settles down, teach her how to track her periods on a calendar. Eventually she may be able to predict when her periods will begin.

Schedule a medical checkup for your daughter if:

- Her periods last more than seven days

- She has menstrual cramps that aren’t relieved by over-the-counter medications

- She’s soaking more pads or tampons than usual

- She’s missing school or other activities because of painful or heavy periods

- She goes three months without a period or suspects she may be pregnant

- She hasn’t started menstruating by age 15

The changes associated with puberty can be a little scary. Reassure your daughter that it’s normal to feel apprehensive about menstruating, but it’s nothing to be too worried about and you’re there to answer any questions she may have.

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