The timing of women's reproductive events is shifting. What does it mean?

The age and experience of women's reproductive events are changing.
The age and experience of women's reproductive events are changing. Photo: Stocksy

A woman who has her period or gives birth for the first time today has a vastly different experience than she would have 60 years ago.

Menstruation has historically been represented as shameful or even as an illness. So taboo was the subject, it is not uncommon to hear stories like that of my friend’s mother, who was so terrified when she had her first period, she believed she was bleeding to death because she had never been  told about menstruation.

Compare that to another friend, now in her 30s, whose father cried with pride and whose parents celebrated the moment with her, pegging it as an exciting transition towards womanhood.

Rayka Zehtabchi wins best short documentary for Period. End of Sentence.
Rayka Zehtabchi wins best short documentary for Period. End of Sentence.  Photo: NINE

Today, we have drop-of-blood-emojis, hashtags (#happytobleed #freethetampons) and marathon runners free-bleeding while a documentary about menstruation won an Oscar last month.

"Oh, my God. I'm not crying because I'm on my period or anything. I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar," the film’s director, Rayka Zehtabchi exclaimed.

Similarly, when my grandmother gave birth for the first time at 24, she was alone and separated from her husband during the ordeal (and given she was alone trying to birth my dad who was 11 pounds, I think “ordeal” adequately captures it) whereas I was 37 and supported by my partner every step of the way.

It’s not just our experiences of these “events” that are changing, but our age too.

Women are experiencing menarche (the onset of menstruation) younger, having their first child later (if at all), while the age of menopause has stayed about the same, according to a new study.

Up until the mid 19th century, women in Western countries had their first period at around 17.

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Today, women in the Western world are, on average, having their first period at 12.9, giving birth for the first time at 25.7, and experiencing natural menopause at 50.5, the study of more than 500,000 women globally showed.

Women born before 1930 had their first period one year later (aged 13.5) and their first child about two-and-a-half years earlier (24.8) than those born between 1970 and 1984 (who were aged 12.6 and 27.3 respectively).

The cause of the changing tides is varied but largely related to lifestyle, social and environmental factors.

Our experiences early on in life can affect when menstruation starts.
Our experiences early on in life can affect when menstruation starts. Photo: Stocksy

Childhood stressors, including parental divorce and abuse, as well as obesity, can trigger hormones related to early reproductive development while improved nutrition and endocrine-disrupting pollutants from the use of certain cleaning products, cosmetics and plastics may also play a part.

The delay in childbirth and an increase of women not having children (up from 14 to 22 per cent), on the other hand, is primarily social, said lead author, Professor Gita Mishra from the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health.

“Many of the changes, such as women choosing to have their first child later or to not have children, have occurred alongside major social changes over decades, from the availability of contraception to more women in the work force and with higher education levels,” Mishra said.

Menopause, along with other major reproductive events in a woman's life, can be a positive experience.
Menopause, along with other major reproductive events in a woman's life, can be a positive experience. Photo: Supplied

Despite these changes, women are still experiencing menopause around the same age as they have historically.

“This is an interesting finding – it suggests that genetic factors are a key determinant of the timing of menopause,” Mishra said. “This is further supported by the ethnic differences in the age at menopause.”

While the stigma around these major reproductive events is changing, there is still a way to go.

Recent research from the UK found almost half (47 per cent) the women surveyed didn’t understand or know what to expect when their period started, and only 22 per cent felt excited, or happy about it. Separate research has found that childbirth is a "common" cause of fear for women whilst about 20 per cent of women experiencing menopause feel embarrassed or stupid.

Having open conversations about these pivotal moments in a woman's life and knowing what to expect is important to shed the fear and stigma and perhaps turn them into something to celebrate.

Research has found that a shift in attitude towards menstruation may help women feel more control of their bodies, and reduce symptoms of PMS. A woman's attitude towards childbirth influences their emotional health during pregnancy and their birth experience, while viewing menopause as an evolution of womanliness and a new phase in life decreases the emotional distress and physical symptoms many women experience.

Education about these events is also important because they have implications for our health, Mishra said of the new research.

“The findings are important because the timing of reproductive events is linked to the risk of poor health in later life, such as having early age at menarche – when a women has her first period before 11 years – is linked with increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in later life,” Mishra explained. "Delaying age at childbirth has implications for both mothers’ and their children’s health, including pregnancy complications."

Knowledge helps us to be prepared and mitigate risks by caring for our health, Mishra said.

“If today’s women are looking to take more control over their circumstances or in managing their life choices, then this information would be useful to take a longer and broader perspective, including their long term health.”

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