Or, depending on your situation, it may have been time a loooong, long while ago. It seems I made an (unusual) good parenting call and dealt with this topic years before it was needed, because the kids were much more interested in such things when they weren't eminently personal to them. Now that they're actually teens, the conversations seem to be more needs-based. And things don't always go my way. Like that incident I had with the really fancy expensive teen puberty book that I handed over with misty eyes and a loving smile, but was thrown in the garbage without ever being read. Gulp. Lesson learned.
Talking to your daughter: First, remember that periods are a big hairy scary deal, and approach it with the understanding that you might not succeed in reaching her. I don't remember much about my own journey into puberty, except for the event of my first period. It happened while I was visiting my Grandma, and I secretly rummaged in her bathroom drawers to find pads. When my mother picked me up from the ferry the next day, I broke down in tears of shame as I confessed that I'd "got my period". She reassured me, and congratulated me, and took me to a department store to buy jeans. JEANS!!! To the 80's girl who had been mostly stuck in cords and other unfashionable pants until that point, the prospect of brand new jeans was a dream come true! I remember that my first cramps descended on me between the tables of Calvin Klein, Guess, and B.U.M. Equipment, and I doubled over in agony, unable to take my choices into the changing room. We left without any jeans, and at home my Mum made me tea and advised me to take a hot bath. While I was in the bath, my father came home and, on hearing the happy news (ack), came to congratulate me. He declared that we would have a traditional First Period Party to celebrate!!! Of course I was mortified, and his humour fell rather flat. That's all I remember. So as far as going off my own experience, I couldn't, and as a parent I've been flying blind the whole way.
Fortunately or not, your daughter's experience may not be anything like your own. The way her body works may be entirely different; she may menstruate at different times, and she may require an entirely different set of supplies and arrangements to effectively manage her cycle. So it's a good idea to listen to your daughter's advice and questions at least as much as you share your own. A couple of years ago, my daughter suggested we make our own pads, and I was fascinated that it had never occurred to me before! We did a lot of research and experimenting with various materials, and concluded that we couldn't easily make anything as leak-proof as the store-bought (cloth) variety. Imagine us at the dining room table, pouring water onto various materials and testing "wet feeling" and leakage on blue paper towels. It reminded me of a very bad maxi pad commercial from my childhood. And we failed. So we gave up. But it was a wonderful bonding opportunity that never would have happened if I had suggested it. And now I wear cloth pads... something that reminds me every month how proud and grateful I am to have listened to my daughter's advice!
Talking to your son: Sons need to talk about these things too! I will never forget my father telling me that he knew nothing about menstruation until he lived with my mother. Can you imagine going through life as a little boy and later teen, wondering forever about the mysterious toilet behaviours of your mother and later school-mates, and never feeling able to ask? No wonder there's so much fear of women! Explain these things to your sons. Let them in on the convoluted systems you have in place to manage your period (and everything else about life) in this sometimes unforgiving world. They'll grow up with a deeper understanding, a greater compassion, and a greater respect for women.
Keep talking, be askable, and be willing to go outside of your comfort zone to discuss or research whatever comes up. I googled beachtails with my kids today. Ew. Luckily for me, they thought so too!
Now for the products. We've been experimenting with these, in our house, and I thought I'd give some reviews of some of the more popular options available to us. What works for you depends on the shape of your body as well as your daily activities and circumstances. Girls just starting puberty will likely try many options before settling on what works for them individually. At 43, I'm still trying out new options and my needs are always changing!
Home-made cloth pads: If you have lots of time and a good assortment of fabric options, go for it! It's a great project, although from our experience will involve a lot of trial and error. Maybe in the early stages of this experimental process, stick to some tried-and-true options for school and other public outings.
Lunapads: This is our main brand, but only because they're Canadian, and offer free shipping to Canada. The greatest feature of Lunapads is the soft cotton fabric they use (organic available too), and the cute lined pouches of various styles, intended for holding used pads while on the go. They make a huge range of different shapes and sizes of both pads and period panties, so it's likely you'll find the arrangement that's right for you. The drawbacks are thick bulky pads that don't actually stay in place very well (resolved by using period panties instead), and a very short lined area on their period panties. They have recently released a line of boxer-briefs with a longer lining, but it's still too narrow for me! Also, they are REALLY expensive. On the bright side, though, every Lunapad you buy means one Afripad donated to a girl in need. Lunapads also sells a waterproof blanket for sleeping on. This gives a feeling of security for those who are worried about night-time leaks. It's pretty expensive, so we haven't splurged on this, but it looks like a nice product.
Thinx: If you like shiny slippery underwear, Thinx period panties are actually pretty great. The liner coverage on some of them far outpaces Lunapads, and for those of us who don't like that weird shiny slippery fabric, they now offer organic cotton styles, too. The fit is a little bit smaller than Lunapads' panties, but still pretty great. The major drawback is the cost of shipping to Canada. It makes them financially inaccessible for many Canadians, at this point. Hopefully that changes soon.
Menstrual Cup: Diva Cup. Fleurcup. Lena Cup. Kind of daunting for new menstruators, but if you can handle a tampon, you can handle a menstrual cup... and they keep things very tidy, which is appealing to some of us! We use them with a light pad or period panties in case of leaks, but to be honest, I've never had a leak! And of course which brand and size you buy depends on your vagina: smaller for girls and women who haven't yet birthed babies, and larger for those who have.
Natural disposable pads: We use Natracare. It's great, but doesn't offer any super heavy protection for us perimenopausal types. For anything less, though, they do offer a range of styles and sizes, they look fresh and clean, and are quieter to open in public washrooms, which is a big plus for girls who are still worried about being heard while changing pads. You can also pre-tear the sides of the pad wrappers to avoid some of the ripping sounds in public washrooms.
Unnatural disposable pads: They can be handy for very heavy flow days, or in social/public situations where rinsing a pad in a sink is not an option (or there's no privacy to do so). Some brands (like Stayfree) simply reek, and basically announce to the world that you're menstruating (and that you use Stayfree... weird advertising gimmick?) Others, like Always and Exact, are blissfully unscented, but can cause a lot of sweat or sometimes rashes due to their lack of natural fibres. But if your skin can handle them, they're definitely an option.
Tampons: due to concerns about toxic shock and cervical cancer, we don't use these. If you really do want them, go for the unbleached type sold by companies like Natracare, Organyc, and Seventh Generation.
Free Bleeding: Yeah... this is not popular among young teens. But an interesting topic to talk about!
So that's it - talk to your kids and keep your mind open to all the great options we have for menstruating. Really this topic doesn't need to be treated any differently than the topic of a runny nose, flu-care, immunity and handkerchief or tissue options. It's just a part of our bodies' function, and through talking to our kids, we can let go of some our own inhibitions and grow a stronger, wiser community.