Mothers and daughters are still too embarrassed to discuss their periods, says Caroline Millar
I am just getting out the Tampax box when my daughter bursts through the bathroom door. "What are you doing, Mummy?" I try to reply, stammering a little. Claire is only four, but even if she were older, would I find it any easier? It isn't just that it's embarrassing. There is sadness that your little girl will have all of this to cope with. Talking about it hurts. Some mothers find it almost impossible.

Clare Molyneux is 18, and her mother has mentioned periods to her only once. "When I was five or six we were at the shops and they were selling sanitary towels. I asked my mother, "What's that?" She said, "I'll tell you later", which she did".

Clare started menstruating at 10. At the time she thought, "Ooh look, it's happened to me!" But despite her close relationship with her mother, she admits: "I find the subject quite difficult to talk about. She doesn't know when I have my period." Clare learnt most of the basic facts from friends.

More reliable information comes in a paperback published last week. The Period Book (Piatkus, pounds 6.99) is aimed at girls from nine upwards, and it claims to tell you "everything you don't want to ask". But why, after decades of "liberation", can't girls ask their parents about periods? Have they sensed that we don't want to talk about it?

Ann Dempsey's daughter Sarah is nearly 11. "We've had to make the talking incidental - a bit at a time, so as not to panic her ... it has made us closer," she believes, "because she knows what I'm going through." But Ann admits she has very mixed feelings about Sarah's approaching adolescence.

Sarah, facing major physical upheavals, is uncertain about the future. "At school we watched a video about it; it was quite good. And I do talk to my friends." She appreciates her mother's help. "But sometimes I wish I was little again, because I don't like changing."

Ann empathises with her reluctance. "She's started to tell me she doesn't want to grow up. She sees that older girls start to perspire, and we had to talk about that, and get some nice little cleansers and things."

According to Karen Gravelle, the American author of The Period Book, "Mothers and fathers are fearful and worried about their adolescent daughters and that's been the case for ever." This is what makes it painful for parents to talk about periods and the onset of sexuality.

Karen wrote the book with input from her niece Jennifer, who was then aged 15. Karen agrees that the aunt/niece relationship made it easier than if Jennifer had been her own daughter. A mother is often very aware of the downside of periods for her child. As Karen Gravelle says, "Let's face it, it's a drag. From the day she gets her period until the time of the menopause this kid is going to have to think, `Oh God, I hope I'm not getting my period when I'm on vacation'."

Mothers have other, deeper fears, too. A first period underlines the fact that one's daughter is a member of what is still the second sex. "We are very aware that the game changes and that little girls will get all of the disadvantages of being female that they didn't have before."

Some daughters do not share these fears. "They're excited about it" says Karen Gravelle. "I have letters from little girls saying, `I wish I were getting my period NOW'."

Karen found that writing the book made her more relaxed about menstruation. "Jennifer, her mother, my mother and I were sitting around the table at Christmas dinner and talking about retrieving a tampon when the string is up. It was the first time I'd discussed that with other women."

When Jennifer started her periods at 14, her mother laughed ("in fact she chuckled"). She teased Jennifer, saying, "Well, you're in for it now, because this won't go away for a long time." Jennifer says parents would benefit from being less serious in their approach. "I think people view it too much as having to have `that talk'. With me and my mum, whenever we got onto the subject of menstruation, we'd keep going with it. It was just daily conversation."

And there is an upside, says Karen Gravelle. "If you're at high school and you see this cluster of girls around another little girl, you can be sure that the girl has blood on the back of her skirt. The other girls have made a little circle around her and they are walking her to the ladies' room." This solidarity is a source of male envy. "There are good things that men don't have. Little girls should know that other women will always come to your aid."