For people who menstruate, having a period can feel like both one of the most constant, and one of the most chaotic parts of your life. From the moment that you start your first period as a teenager, right up until the menopause—normally in your late 40s and 50s—having your period becomes a normal part of life. So why is it they often catch you off guard? Just when you think you’ve grown accustomed to your monthly cycle and you know exactly what to expect, you get a little older and another big change in your menstrual cycle throws you. The most straightforward advice when it comes to navigating a lifetime of menstruation is simply, “expect the unexpected,” but today, we’re going to give you some guidelines, so you can find out what you can expect from your period in different stages of life.

Your teens

This is where it all begins. According to the NHS, most people in the UK tend to experience their first period between the age of 10 and 16. At first, it is typical for teenagers to experience irregular ovulation, and it could even take a few years for you to start experiencing regular, predictable periods – along with regular unwanted side effects such as cramps, PMS, and breast tenderness. These symptoms can be a real pain, but rest assured, they are a normal part of menstruation. If you suffer from particularly painful cramps, or experience feelings of depression during PMS, you should contact your GP to rule out any potential underlying health concerns.

Your 20s

For the most part, your 20s should be relatively undramatic in the menstruation department. Typically, your monthly cycle will have become more regular by now, and you’ll know what to expect month in, month out. Because you can expect some degree of regularity during this decade, any sudden changes in your menstrual cycle are worth following up with your GP. A sudden heavy flow or a greater intensity of period cramps could both be signs of a bigger issue.

Another factor typical of people in their 20s is the use of birth control. During this stage of life, many women might not be thinking about having children, therefore, birth control can dictate how you experience your periods during your 20s. An intrauterine device (IUD), for example, can result in heaver periods and more intense pain (although this often improves after the first few months), whereas the combined pill can result in more regular periods, but have also been found to have an impact on some women’s mental well-being. Be sure to consult your GP and do extensive research to find the type of contraception best suited to you.

Your 30s

Like your 20s, you shouldn’t experience anything too out of the ordinary during menstruation in your 30s, so if you experience any unexpected changes during this decade, it’s definitely advisable to contact your GP. Endometriosis, for example, is most commonly diagnosed when a woman is in her 30s, so be sure to look out for any of the symptoms, including extremely bad period pain and severe pains during or after sex.

Another factor that many women have to take into account during their 30s is pregnancy. This is the most common life stage for couples to try for a baby, and with pregnancy, comes a complete upheaval in your menstrual cycle. When you’re pregnant, you can expect your regular period to vanish into thin air. However, although it isn’t technically a period, many women experience vaginal bleeding during their pregnancy and new mums often experience postpartum bleeding after giving birth – maternity towels can help you to manage this.

Everyone is different, and each new mum will see their periods begin to return at different stages after giving birth – according to the NHS, this could be as soon as five to six weeks after labour. For mums who are breastfeeding, periods may not return until after they’ve stopped breastfeeding. This is because the hormones that your body uses to make breast milk can affect the hormones that control your periods.

Your 40s

During your 40s, you can expect to experience some big changes in your menstrual cycle, as this decade is likely to mark the beginning of perimenopausal hormonal fluctuations. The menopause is a natural part of ageing, and there’s no clear-cut age when it begins. For most women in the UK, the menopause is likely to begin between the ages of 45 and 55, with 51 being the most common age according to the NHS.

In your 40s, therefore, you are likely to experience perimenopausal symptoms caused by oestrogen level fluctuation as your body prepares for the final few years of menstruation. At this stage, fluctuations in your hormones can cause irregular periods, a heavier flow, longer occurrences of PMS, and spotting in between periods. Although all of these changes are completely normal during this life stage, you should still be on the lookout for any major irregularities that you think go further than perimenopausal symptoms and consult your doctor to be on the safe side.

The characterising feature of menstruation in your 40s is likely to be a frustrating irregularity. Your periods can become almost impossible to predict, with your flow changing dramatically month by month. Even during this time of fluctuation and irregularity, however, it is still possible to fall pregnant, so be sure to still think about your birth control options if you’re not planning on having a baby at this point.

Your 50s

When you reach your 50s, it’s time to prepare for all things menopause. Lots of things are going to change during this time, and you should prepare yourself for menopausal symptoms while remembering that they are completely normal and shouldn’t cause alarm. Typical symptoms of the menopause can include:

  • Hot flushes
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Night sweats
  • Fluctuations in sexual desire
  • Achiness
  • Bladder issues
  • Extremely heavy periods
  • Headaches

Needless to say, this stage can be difficult to get accustomed to and the symptoms can really disrupt your day-to-day life. However, they are all completely natural and shouldn’t ring any major alarm bells unless you feel that your symptoms are highly unusual.

It all seems like a lot to wrap your head around, but so long as you know what to expect (even when it is to expect the unexpected) you’ll be able to prepare as best you can for the next stage of your menstrual cycle. What’s more, knowing what to expect from your period at various stages of life makes it easier to spot any serious irregularities for which you should seek medical attention. Ultimately, everyone’s body is unique, and although the idea of all these changes may seem daunting – especially for teenagers who’ve just started menstruating – you’ll soon grow accustomed to your own cycle and be ready for anything it throws at you!