When most women think of the word “puberty,” we consider our first menstrual cycle, which probably began somewhere around the age of 12 or 13. We might smile to ourselves as we recall tearing through Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? before discussing it urgently with our girlfriends after school. We might even laugh a little about how freaked out we were over those first sprouting hairs under our armpits and “down there.”
But puberty is changing for a segment of American girls, who may be nowhere near emotionally ready for bras, feminine hygiene products, or Spin the Bottle. And, it goes without saying, neither are their parents. That’s because these girls are as young as 7 and in second grade.
Puberty in girls is not, as many people believe, the age when menstruation first starts. According to Louise Greenspan, MD, and Julianna Deardorff, PhD, co-authors of The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls, the initial stages of puberty start with the first signs of breast development and pubic hair, which both generally appear a few years before menses starts.
In the past, only 5% of U.S. girls were believed to be experiencing precocious puberty, defined as the onset of breast and hair development in girls age 7 or younger. Their research indicates the figure is now closer to 15%, with a 27% showing breast development by age 8. Similarly, public hair is now appearing in 19% of American girls by age 8.
No one is exactly sure why precocious puberty in girls is on the rise. Higher obesity rates may be partially to blame. Exposure to estrogen and hormone-mimicking chemicals in plastics may also trigger early-onset development in girls. The use of antibiotics in animals in the food supply is also suspect. And race and genetics may play a factor, too, with African American girls showing higher rates of early puberty than their Hispanic, White, and Asian peers. Still, all these groups are showing earlier onsets of puberty. There doesn’t seem to be a single cause for the trend.
With approximately a quarter of American second- and third-grade girls now facing some kind of early development, parents should pay close attention to what their young daughters may be physically experiencing. WebMD recommends the following:
Watch what your child is eating.
Our fat cells make leptin, a protein that plays a key role in appetite and reproduction. Girls who have high leptin levels from being overweight may be more prone to early puberty. If your daughter is overweight, frame your dietary concerns about improving her health, not how much she weighs or her developing breasts.
Encourage plenty of exercise, and be a good example.
Kids do as they see you do. So help keep your daughter’s weight at a healthy level by joining her as she runs in the yard or hits the soccer pitch. Model what it is to be an active female.
Don’t confuse sexuality with puberty.
If your daughter is developing early, she’s likely to be self-conscious about her body. Don’t confuse her further by thinking she’s ready to discuss what a teen or ‘tween can handle—like dating or boys. And avoid teasing remarks about her changing body at all costs.
Build a healthy body image for your daughter, no matter when puberty hits.
Some girls are curvy. Some stick straight. Most fall are in between. As your daughter’s budding figure grows and changes, encourage her to appreciate it for its strength and abilities.
Talk to your pediatrician, and ask if you need to see a pediatric endocrinologist.
Your doctor may measure your daughter’s hormone levels and bone growth. If your child is maturing too early, your doctor may also recommend medications that block sex hormones to prevent further development, and he or she may refer you to a pediatric endocrinologist for further testing.
Try not to worry.
As her parent you may be a nervous wreck, worried about how your daughter will handle the physical changes coming her way at such a young age. With your loving support, chances are she’ll do just fine.