My breasts became noticeable around my 11th birthday — ahead of most of my friends. I know. I still recall my confusion when a boy tried to get into my sleeping bag one night at camp when we all slept outside. Thinking he was cold, I said, “You can have my bag,” and left him there, retreating to my cabin.
Pubic hair and budding breasts — those exciting and sometimes embarrassing signs of female puberty — are arriving earlier now, for some girls before the age of 7. The main reason, researchers say, is that children are fatter. Body fat secretes estrogen in the body, and estrogen stimulates female development.
Girls have been maturing faster for some time. Back in 1997, research emerged that the typical age of the first period had dropped from 16 in Victorian times to 12 and a half. That number has continued to slip, but not as dramatically as the age of the earlier signs of puberty. At age 7, a huge 23 percent of African American girls, 15 percent of Latina girls, and 10 percent of white girls are sprouting breasts, according to a multi-year study, many more than among girls born 10 to 30 years earlier.
An 8-year old who looks more like she’s 14 may feel special, but the attention can also be confusing. “Everyone assume she’s older,” says Frank Biro, MD, who divides his time between research and treating teenagers at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center, “and her peers and adults interact with her as if she was older.” Her emotional and social maturity may not keep up with those expectations. In my own sleeping-bag incident, I had no idea what my male visitor had in mind!
Historically, the hottest girls in school have gotten into trouble. “On average, early-maturing girls initiate sex, experiment with drug and alcohol use, are more likely to be depressed or anxious, and are more prone to have an eating disorder or display conduct problems compared to their later-developing peers,” write the coauthors of “The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls,” pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan and psychologist Julianna Deardorff.
They also tend to have lower academic achievement. In adulthood, early puberty is associated with increased risk for breast cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality (the term that means “dying from anything”).
As scary as that sounds, parents needn’t panic. If your daughter matures early, “monitor her more closely,” Biro says. A family that builds a strong emotional bond with her can mitigate the risks, says Deardorff.
Once your daughter is showing breasts, she’ll typically begin to menstruate within two and a half years. A gap of more than four years may indicate a medical problem, Biro says.
Parents can try to push back the physical changes by helping their daughters maintain a healthy weight. Biro’s preferred measure is the waist-to-height ratio. After the age of one, if a girl’s waist is more than 60 percent of her height, both measured in inches, she’s “at risk of having the metabolic complications of overweight,” he says.
Everyday chemicals in the modern world, some of which mimic estrogen, seem to be part of the problem. Biro’s research team is investigating dozens of chemicals, but “it’s impossible to avoid all of them,” he says. The Environmental Working Group produces consumer guides. Biro recommends that people interested in buying organic foods check the group’s list of the most dangerous produce and avoid beauty products on its “Not Too Pretty" list. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers, since the heat will release chemicals in the plastic. The “New Puberty” book offers tips about deodorant, bralettes, tank tops, and sanitary products.
However, Biro doesn’t subscribe to the popular fear that antibiotics in meat or dairy food affect us when consumed. He does suggest eating foods with soy; some evidence suggests soy delays puberty in girls, he says.
What about boys? It’s not clear that they’re maturing earlier. Changes typically begin around age twelve. If your son shows signs of puberty – such as acne, body odor, or hair growth before the age of nine – speak to his doctor.
March 02, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN