A growing body of research points to the conclusion that girls are going through puberty earlier – some as young as eight years old. What's causing it, what are the consequences and how can we best support our daughters?
A seven-year study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed over 1,200 girls between 2004 and 2011 - the participants aged six – eight when the research commenced. The study's aim was to track the girls' onset of puberty, via breast development.
The results of the study demonstrated that the lowest median age was 8.8 years for African American girls and the highest 9.7 years for Asian girls. As co-author and pediatric endocronologist Dr Louise Greenspan notes, given these were median ages, half of the girls developed even earlier.
The research confirmed the similar findings of a seminal 1997 study, also published in Pediatrics that used a sample of 17,000 girls.
Precocious puberty is a medical term for puberty that begins in girls under 8 and boys under 9. The cause is often unknown, however it is sometimes related to an underlying condition such as a brain tumour.
"In general, we think that 7 is now probably a normal age to have some signs of puberty," Greenspan told The Wall Street Journal. "So the cut-off for precocious puberty is a gray zone now."
Could that get even earlier? Professor of Pediatrics, Dr Biro, who worked on the longitudinal research with Greenspan, doesn't think so. "We may be approaching a biological minimum," he said.
When it comes to explaining the earlier onset of puberty, Dr Biro highlights that a larger BMI "Is probably the single biggest reason." Exposure to certain chemicals and intense stress during childhood have also been suggested.
More recently, prenatal factors have been examined, too. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in January found that girls whose mothers were overweight prior to pregnancy and who experienced gestational diabetes went through puberty earlier. The study followed over 400 girls between 2005 and 2012.
Physical changes aside, there are a number of psychological consequences associated with early puberty.
A 2016 study, published in Pediatrics, found that early onset of breast development was associated with higher risk of depression. Wrote the authors, "Whether these findings are indicators of the effects of hormones or transient effects of social pressures remain to be determined."
Girls who develop before their peers are also more likely to drink, smoke and have sex earlier.
Dr Biro highlights that the problem is a social one. "People relate to an early-maturing girl as if she is older than she is, but there is really no correlation between age of onset of puberty and one's social or emotional maturation," he told Scientific American.
As such, it's the social and psychological impacts of early puberty that parents are encouraged to focus their attention on.
Greenspan subsequently co-authored a book called The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls with psychologist Dr Julianna Deardoff. In it, Greenspan and Deardoff offer caregivers a number of tips to effectively manage early puberty with their daughters. And, unlike the movies, it's not simply having "The Talk."
Instead, the authors highlight the importance of maintaining an ongoing conversation that "goes through phases and begins long before you address the birds and the bees."
Here are some of their tips:
- See your child's doctor if you're worried about early onset puberty. "Remember," the authors write, "The vast majority of girls going through puberty early do not need to be medicated and do not have an identifiable medical problem causing Central Precocious Puberty."
- While puberty may seem as though it's happening quickly, in reality it's a slow process. There's time to talk – even if it doesn't feel that way. That said – don't procrastinate. It's important to make time for these conversations.
- Don't wait until your child starts asking questions. According to the authors, that simply doesn't work when a child is going through puberty early. "An early maturing girl needs to be educated in an age-appropriate way about what's going on with her body, before many of her later-developing peers need to know," they write.
- Body odour may be the first occasion to begin a conversation. "Most kids will have body odour first…and it's an excellent starting point for opening the line of communication about body issues," Greenspan and Deardoff advise. This can provide an opportunity to talk about other things girls can expect in the future (e,g., pubic hair and breast changes.)
- Make sure you're relaxed and comfortable as children can sense when adults are anxious.
- Remember that there's a difference between "befriending" your child and being a parent. "Children need to feel that they can count on us," the authors write.
- If the idea of a one-on-one conversation is too anxiety provoking, hold a "puberty party" and tackle the awkwardness with other mums and daughters. "Share the information and the giggles," note Greenspan and Deardoff before suggesting you might want to call it something else to avoid embarrassing the girls.
- Lastly, the authors remind parents to stay brave, in charge, patient, consistent. And loving.