What will I notice first?
Puberty happens in stages. As your hormones change, so does your body. In the years leading up to your first period, you’ll notice changes in your nipples, chest and pubic hair. Your body will become more like an adult, and becoming pregnant will become possible.
For most people, these changes become noticeable around ages 8–10, but can happen earlier or later than that (1,2). Getting your period happens between one and three years later (2–2.5 years for most people) (3,4).
Waiting for a first period can be stressful, and it can be difficult to know exactly when your period will start. This first step in guesstimating when you’ll get your first period, is asking your biological mom when it happened for her (if you can). Beyond that, your body may give you a few signs that can help you make a good guess:
Changes to your nipples will likely be the first thing you notice (5).
Most people get their first period 2–2.5 years after their breasts begin to grow (3,4). In the beginning, the small bumps on and around your nipples become raised. Then, the darker area right around your nipple starts to get bigger. Your breast/nipple area then starts to puff out—you might feel like there is a little lump on your chest for a while (5). These are called breast buds. It can happen on just one side at first, and take the other side about 6 months to catch up (6).
Breast buds usually grow about 2–2.5 years before your period starts, but if you notice your breast buds at an earlier age (when you're 8 or 9), it may take closer to three years for your period to start. If your breasts develop later (like at age 13), it can sometimes take less than a year for the period to start (3,4).
The shape and height of your body will also be changing around this time - by the time you notice breast buds, your overall growth has already become faster (7)
Shortly after your breast buds start to grow, you might notice the first signs of pubic hair. About 9 in 10 people experience things in this order (8). Others see pubic hair first—either way is normal and healthy. You may just see a few long hairs in the beginning—your pubic hair will fill in over time (6).
If you haven’t had any acne yet, you might get some first pimples around this time. For other people it happens later. You might also notice that your skin is oilier in general, and that your sweat and underarms have more of a smell (9). Acne is a normal part of puberty, so washing your face more or eating different foods probably won’t help. If your acne is severe, or if you think the hair growth on your body or face is unusual, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll help you know what’s normal, and if anything can help.
Underarm hair often doesn’t begin to grow until around or after menstruation begins, but it may be different for you (10,11).
Fun fact: The word puberty comes from the Latin word pubes, which means “hair.”
Your body’s shape and size also changes quickly before your period starts. Menstruation usually starts about six months to a year after your fastest growth spurt (after your “peak height velocity”). This is the average timing, but it may be different for you. It can also happen two years before your first period, or around the same time as your first period. If you’re tracking your height, and you notice it changes fast and then starts to slow, your first period is likely on its way (12–14).
Along with changes to your height and weight, remember that it’s normal for the size of your pants to get bigger as your hips widen. Some parts of your body will become fattier and rounder, while other parts stay the same.
Your vagina, uterus and ovaries also grow in size during this time. The way your vulva looks and feels will also change. You can take a look at the changes yourself by using a small mirror. The outer lips of your vulva will become fattier, the inner lips become bigger and more wrinkly, and your clitoris grows a bit in size (6).
The exact timing of your body’s growth will be unique to you.
Sometimes after your breasts start to grow, you may notice some fluid on your underwear. Your vagina may also feel a bit wetter than before (15). Some people will notice this about 6–12 months before their first period (16). The liquid is normal vaginal discharge. It will likely be a thin, whitish liquid, and won’t have much of a smell. This happens as your vagina develops a new community of healthy bacteria, and become more acidic to protect your reproductive tract from bad bacteria (15).
As you get close to your first period, you might also notice that your vaginal fluid changes day-to-day. Even if you haven’t had a period yet, this is the beginning of your menstrual cycle. Your menstrual cycle is much more than just your period. The hormones in your body will go up and down each cycle, as your body gets ready to release an egg. Your vaginal fluid is one of many things that changes along with these hormones. Sometimes there will be more fluid, sometimes less. Sometimes it may look and feel creamy, like a moisturizer, or stretchy and clear, like an egg white. It will be easier to notice these changes during the cycles
Eventually, it’s important to get to know the normal smell, feel, and changes in your vaginal fluid. Pay attention to what’s on your underwear. Use clean fingers to feel and smell the liquid at the entryway of your vagina. Knowing what’s normal for you will help you spot when anything is “off” in the future.
Don’t try and wash your vaginal discharge away with soap—discharge is normal! Your vagina is amazingly self-cleaning. It can throw off the balance of bacteria in your vagina to “douche” your vagina or to wash your inner vulva with soap. This can cause your vagina to smell funny, become itchy, and become less healthy in general (17,18).
Pube party? Period party?
The arrival of your breasts, pubic hair, and first period can feel empowering, intimidating, scary, exciting, or all of these things at the same time. Cultures throughout history have marked the arrival of a first period with a celebration or ceremony. If you or someone close to you is excited about beginning to menstruate, why not find the time to celebrate?
This could mean getting together with family members to mark the occasion and share stories, gathering with friends to buy or make menstrual products, or writing a journal entry or letter to yourself. Talking to a trusted person about how it feels and what to expect can also be helpful.
Some people may feel disconnected from their body, or may not know what a menstrual cycle is until starting to menstruate themselves. Getting your period for the first time can be stressful or scary. In these times it can be helpful to find a trusted, supportive person to talk to—someone who understands and can offer some help.
The American Congress of Ob/Gyns recommends that anyone who begins to see signs of puberty before turning nine or who hasn’t experienced any signs after reaching 15 should have a check-up with an OB/GYN.