Early puberty in girls is a growing problem in the United States and around the world.
In the mid-1800s, the average age of menarche (first menstrual period) was 17. By the late 1960s it had dropped to 12, with anywhere from 9 to about 16 being considered "normal." This change can be considered positive overall; it was mostly a result of improved nutrition, which also resulted in taller stature, longer lifespans, and better overall health.
However, in recent years, the onset of puberty in girls, especially breast and pubic hair development, has dropped even lower. Among Caucasian girls in the United States, 1 in 7 has now started developing breasts and public hair by the age of 8. The figure for African-American girls is 1 in 2. Many doctors and researchers have begun to revise downward the age at which puberty is considered "precocious" - to 7 for Caucasian girls and 6 for African Americans.
But can an eight year old sporting breasts really be considered "normal?" Early onset of puberty is associated with many health risks: both physical and psychological. I believe that the medical community and parents alike must do more to learn about the causes of precocious puberty and work both to reverse the trend towards younger and younger puberty and to provide support for girls who experience it.
Risks of Early Puberty
Environmental and genetic factors play a role in increasing or decreasing these risks for both early and late developing girls. In general, however, girls who experience precocious puberty have a higher risk of:
- Cancer. The earlier the age of first menarche, the greater a girl's risk of developing several types of cancer, particularly breast cancer, due mainly to greater lifetime exposure to the hormone estrogen.
- Menstrual and fertility problems. Increased lifetime exposure to estrogen is also associated with an increased risk of problems such as PMS, menstrual cramps, uterine fibroids, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, fibrocystic breasts, and more.
- Stunted growth. Early puberty is often associated with advanced skeletal age, meaning that a 6 year old girl might have the bone structure of an 8 or 9 year old. Although they might initially be taller than slower-developing girls, girls who experience precocious puberty are likely to end up shorter, because after the initial growth spurt or spurts, puberty triggers the body to stop growing up and start filling out. Slower developing girls have more time to grow tall than the average girl who experiences precocious puberty.
- Lesser brain development. Unfortunately, puberty also eventually triggers the end of brain development. Again, this gives girls who experience early onset puberty less time to develop to their full physical potential before growth ceases.
- Depression, anxiety, and stress. Being different is hard on both early and late developers, and combined with the mood swings associated with puberty, many girls who experience precocious puberty also have problems coping and may need extra emotional support from parents, teachers, and other trusted adults.
- Sexual harassment. Sexual harassment of schoolchildren by other schoolchildren is a growing problem in the United States, and early developing girls are often targeted earlier and more frequently than other students, which can exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other mental problems.
- Sexual precocity. Girls with precocious puberty are often treated as sexual beings earlier than other girls and may be targeted more by older boys and even adult men than slower developing girls. They also have to deal earlier with their own sexual feelings. Girls who experience early puberty may be more likely to engage in early sexual activity, increasing their risk of teenage pregnancy or STDs.
Possible Causes of Early Puberty
Note to parents: because early puberty can be caused by some serious conditions, including certain types of brain tumors and thyroid diseases, it is important to consult a doctor if you are concerned about your daughter's development, especially if you have no family history of early puberty.
- Genetic factors. If a girl's mother, sisters, and other female relatives experienced early puberty, the chances are very strong she will too.
- Obesity. As the rate of childhood obesity has exploded, so has the rate of precocious puberty. This is one of the most widely accepted theories about the rise in early puberty rates. Estrogen and leptin, two important hormones in puberty, are produced by fat cells, and many researchers believe puberty in girls is triggered when the body reaches a certain percentage of fat, in combination with other factors. This is one reason many competitive youth athletes experience later puberty than their peers.
- Xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are man-made compounds that mimic the behavior of natural estrogen in the body. They occur in everything from plastic baby bottles and food storage containers to shampoo, cosmetics, and sunscreen to pesticides and insecticides used in residential and agricultural pest control to growth hormones fed to the animals that produce our meat, milk and eggs to the water we bathe in. Some shampoos targeted at the African-American community even advertise their estrogen content. Many scientists believe xenoestrogens are a major contributing factor to the epidemic of precocious puberty; others believe they are only minor contributors.
- Soy-based infant formula. Soy has one of the highest concentrations of phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring plant estrogens. In adults, phytoestrogens are generally considered neutral or even beneficial, especially from dietary sources. However, some researchers feel that the concentration of phytoestrogen in soy infant formulas may reach dangerous levels because these formulas are the only or primary source of nourishment for so long. These researchers claim that infants fed soy formula receive the estrogen equivalent of five birth control pills per day (based on body weight). About 25% of infants in the United States are fed soy-based formulas.
- Sexualized television and media. In one controversial theory, some researchers claim that exposure to sexualized media may be contributing to the increase in cases of early puberty. It is clear that visual stimuli affect the brain and body chemistry. For example, a photograph of a delicious looking meal causes people to salivate. However, the degree to which media depictions of sex could affect brain and body chemistry is still extremely uncertain and highly controversial.
Reducing the Chances of Early Puberty
Here are some steps you can take to reduce the chances your daughter will experience early puberty:
Reduce exposure to xenoestrogens.
Although the involvement of xenoestrogens in early puberty remains controversial, I believe it is better to be safe than sorry. One of the most potent and notorious xenoestrogens, DDT, was originally considered to be completely safe, and remains legal in some parts of the world.
Some compounds to avoid:
- Phthalates. Plasticizers used to make plastic softer and more flexible, found in a truly depressing rangeof products, from baby bottles to IV bags to children's toys to liquid cosmetics to pesticides to food storage containers to certain clothing and footwear items. Learn more about phthalates.
- Bisphenol A (BPA). Another compound found in a depressing variety of plastic (and non-plastic) products, including baby bottles and tin cans, and shown to leach into food and liquids at unsafe levels, especially when heated.
- Parabens. Preservatives used in many cosmetics and toiletries. The most common include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.
- Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs). Flame retardants, now fortunately restricted.
- DDT metabolites, especially DDE. Still found on some agricultural products.
- DEHA. A plasticizer found in some cling wrap and other soft plastics.
- BHT and BHA. Common food preservatives.
- Estradiol. Another name for estrogen. Most commonly found in shampoos marketed to African Americans, despite a proven link to early breast development.
Learn more about reducing exposure to xenoestrogens.
Breastfeeding can be frustrating, time-consuming, and even quite painful at first, but in most cases it provides the best source of nutrition for infants. The longer you breastfeed the less exposure your child will have to the phytoestrogens in soy formulas and the xenoestrogens in (non-organic) dairy formulas, as well as compounds such as phthalates and bisphenol A that occur in many baby bottles. The many other benefits of breastfeeding include lower rates of obesity and allergies in breastfed babies.
Breastfeeding may increase the risk of early puberty if the mother has been exposed to PBBs or high levels of DDT, because both can pass to the infant through breast milk.
Encourage regular moderate exercise.
Regular exercise reduces the chance of early puberty in two ways. First, it greatly reduces the chances of obesity. Second, exercise contributes to maintaining healthy hormone balance by lowering estrogen levels. (Be aware that excessive exercise can lead to too little estrogen, which also causes health problems, including increasing the risk of osteoporosis.)
Eat a balanced diet.
A balanced diet with lots of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, and moderate quantities of animal products will help fight obesity and maintain healthy hormone balance as well. Eat organic foods as often as possible to reduce exposure to xenoestrogens through pesticides residues on food. The growth hormones fed to livestock are another major source of xenoestrogens. Eat organic, preferably grassfed, animal products whenever possible.
Limit Dairy Consumption
New evidence suggests that it may be best to limit milk consumption in girls at risk for early puberty, due to the combination of natural and synthetic hormones found in milk. Fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are believed to be safer than plain milk, and organic milk (again, preferably grassfed) is safer than conventional milk because it does not contain synthetic growth hormones.
Monitor television and media consumption.
Although this is the most controversial possible cause of early puberty, again, better safe than sorry. Restricting age-inappropriate entertainment allows children to be children longer whether or not they are at risk of early puberty, and watching television WITH your children not only allows you to know what they're watching but also offers a prime opportunity to pass on your values through discussions about what you see onscreen and to get in some family bonding time as well. For more on smart media consumption, read Raising Smart Kids Without Throwing Out the TV.
- The Falling Age of Puberty
A report by the Breast Cancer Fund
- More American Girls Hitting Puberty Early
Researchers are investigating why many girls are reaching puberty at earlier ages, a developmental trend putting preteens under social and emotional pressure.
annonymous on March 16, 2012:
My daughter is 8 as well and has breasts and hair..she had the chigger bites and we were using a thin sports bra, but when i noticed the hair, i was shocked. A few days later we took her to the ER for severe abdominal pain, turns out it was a UTI, but they did a CT scan & said she has an egg follicle which was odd for her age. So I guess her peroid will be soon and I had a talk about puberty with her..she had absolutely no clue about any of it. I feel so bad this is happening at such a young age, I was 13 when I started my cycle. Maybe it really is from watching too much TV or something, we don't eat organic food but after reading the other comments - that must not be it. I have always been faithful to give my children vitamins though. Disney Princess gummy vitamins is the kind I've been purchasing for years (at WM). Anyone else?
mommyinpa2 on February 19, 2012:
My daughter is 9 yrs 8 mos and just had her first period - but no other breast development, etc, yet. Has this occurred in anyone else? So unexpected and seems backwards to me! We also eat mostly organic meat, raw milk, free-range eggs, and other organics at times, too. She's very petite - only 4' 2" - so I'm concerned she may not have too many more years left to grow.
karyn on December 20, 2011:
hi i really need to know a facts about puberty
Yvonne on December 12, 2011:
I am currently facing this with my 5 year old daughter who has started to develop. She has a healthy lifestyle and does not drink Soy. I am worried as she is ery tall and has just started taking a size 11 shoe.
Katie:) on November 27, 2011:
Hi I'm Katie I have precosiouse( sorry I can't spell it right) puberty when I was like 5 and now I'm 11 I was wondering what are the chances that I would get cancer because it kinda runs in my family so I'm worried:(
lavanya on November 09, 2011:
useful information...thnx so much
gabri on October 27, 2011:
My daughter is eight. We only eat organic and no meat. I breastfed till she was 3. She horseback rides, dances is skinny. Now she started developing breasts and hair. She is very very upset and so am I. What now? How did this happen?
lesly (babygirl) on October 05, 2011:
thankz a lot for this information i agree with leslu i had hw about it and it really helped me with itttt now i knoe a lot about it n i could even tell my friendz about it..((^.^))
leslu on October 05, 2011:
this is really helpful 4 people thankz a lot for this help fffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuulllllll info.
April on September 13, 2011:
Thank you. This was very informing. I worked in a health food store when I was in nursing school so already knew some of the information. I have a seven Year old who is going thru this and a one year old who I have to worry about the same thing yapping to her. The T.V. Information is something I never would have thought of. Although I try to b very careful of what they watch it is very hard now a days and will be more tentative to that aspect. Again thanks.
firstname.lastname@example.org on February 03, 2011:
My daughter is currently four years old and from reading this and seeing coming i believe strongly that we have found the anwser for why at four years old she is developing pubic hair and breasts. Soy based infant formula... wouldn't it be something if it could be proved that similac ruined my daughters childhood. What price would they put up to try to justify what their product has done.
Cecil on December 11, 2010:
Great info to report and share, and of such importance because it's destroying what we all must come through; The Woman/Mother. I will pass this on to as many people as I can. Thank you
sam amith on September 11, 2010:
i have the same with my 5 year old daughter, she is not a massive child, and i cant make out what could have caused it - the doctor has had her have several tests done through a blood test - which has come back all normal - so i dont know what the next step will be. will pass on any info i see, please could you do the same, thanks sam
Kykay71 on August 10, 2010:
Question for Mummy-Mia
My daughter just turned 4 in July and Is going through this, she is the same as your daughter, very small frame, no weight issues, or other...only connection we are finding with her, was a soy infant formula she was on as a baby, she had a lot of trouble with any type of whole milk, gluten or lactose so she was on this formula for an extended period of time as it was the only form of "milk-substitute" she could digest. Please if you dont mind and you find out any other information, pass along to me. We have tried several hospitals to get her in for treatment/consultation and the eariest we can get in is in late Sept.
Mummy - mia on July 05, 2010:
We have just fou7ndout that our 6 year old daughter is goinf through this reight now, this information ahs been really helpful, although she is of very slight build, is not open to inappropriate TV, no family history, has a varied and balanced healthy diet and fingers crossed is otherwise healthy. We just don't know why it is happening to her and are waiting for test results now to give us some answers we hope.
revitawellness from Mecklenburg on May 17, 2010:
Glad to bookmarked this, Great info hub.........
ceholmes from Chicago on April 14, 2010:
I know some girls who have started "early" and you hit it right on the nose, esp. in terms of psychological development. These symptoms of early puberty do effect these girls, and most negatively than for the better.
Rajinder Soni from New Delhi, India on February 27, 2010:
I agree with myownworld's comment. This is really an excellent hub and I will share with information with my friends today who all have become parents now.
myownworld from uk on February 27, 2010:
Excellent hub! A must read for all parents with daughters. I really found the part on how to reduce onset of early puberty most useful. Have made a mental note of that. Thanks for sharing...! :)
glorybeenow from Texas on February 19, 2010:
This explains a lot. I wonder how many mothers and fathers back in the 60's knew what was going on with early puberty. I can tell you that if you start your period early, then all the old pervs come out of the woodwork. This would explain what they call "child molestation" in families, which in it's self is just plain wrong! Technically though, if it happens with a stranger it's rape, if it happens with a family member it's "molestation". There is a disgusting parallel here. And to think that hormones are at the root cause of early puberty and "female" awareness. Maybe if this was brought to a parent's attention at an early age, then more young females would understand what is making them have the feelings they are having, and maybe they could come up with some ideas to help young girls deal with the hormonal issues that come along with early puberty.
BKCox on December 31, 2009:
I recently come up with my own theory of early age puberty. I believe that we are in the process of an evolutionary leap. Girls, or young ladies, are starting their cycle early-on in order to preserve the human species populous, just as it did in Shakespeare's era (hence; Romeo and Juliet). Then I learned about Builderberg (est. 1974) which wants to depopulate the world to better manage a one world government. Certain foods are laced with chemicals known to cause infertility, such as aspartame, which was never deemed safe for human consumption. Mother Nature knows what's going on. Anyway, I enoyed reading your article.
Leslie Broussard on October 02, 2009:
Did you check out this hub that talks out BPA?
When I was in elementary school, and we had the "girls day" where they taught us all about menstruation, the teacher told us that girls in industrialized nations hit puberty earlier. I never understood why, but after reading bayareagreatthing's hub, it all clicked. And then, I stumbled upon your hub today!
Thank you for finally explaining to me what my fourth grade teacher was trying to tell me!
Chev on July 05, 2009:
Thank you for putting this up. Our generation of females on my mom's side of the family has this, it's only been called greatly to my attention when I see my 9 year-old cousin have the signs of early puberty and her being in a bigger city compared to where I live really has me concerned. This does make me feel a lot better about myself and my cousin being as now I don't feel we're alone with this.
Will Apse on June 29, 2009:
Some scientists believe early puberty is related to stress. Many animal species begin reproductive cycles early in an environment that is stressful (overcrowding, food shortage etc).
One study suggested a stressful home life is a factor. Given the ocean of stress most western families swim in there might be some truth in it.
frogyfish from Central United States of America on June 27, 2009:
Very realistic information with excellent facts to consider. I have dealt with this with a granddaughter and hoped one good side effect would be the growth-stunt. But no, she is the tallest one in the whole family. (5'81.2") And by the way, beautiful inside and out too! Much needed hub, kerryg.
Ivorwen from Hither and Yonder on May 24, 2009:
I would guess that media has a very large roll to play in the early development of some. I know how it influenced me, tho I was much older when exposed to it. Also, it is so hard to find foods that do not contain soy in some areas of the USA.
GeneriqueMedia from Earth on May 06, 2009:
My brother in law's sister hit puperty at like eleven if I recall..so strange to me. I have no doubt it has much to do with xenoestrogens.
LondonGirl from London on April 14, 2009:
7-8 seems very young indeed. My sisters and I hit puberty between 12 and 15 between us, which seems a lot more "normal" to me.
issues veritas on April 14, 2009:
The real sad thing about the age of puberty is that, there are so many years until adulthood. Any age that can produce children from an act of intercourse, is adulthood, but society un-naturally with-hold adulthood until an age of 18. Really it is 21, because at 18 you can't drink and you can't vote.
The original age of 17 that you mention for puberty is closer to the legal age of adulthood, but today 11-13 is way too much time with the hormones raging.
Humans as the most intelligent creatures on Earth, are still run by a primitive mating function. We still do it like the animals for the most part. It would have been better if humans could have sex without conception, until they wanted to conceive. Just like we don't allow the President of the United States too be younger than 35 years old. Then we shouldn't have mothers below the age of an adult. Our development is not consistent with society because we develop too early.
Triplet Mom from West Coast on December 07, 2008:
Great hub!! As a sufferer of early puberty (3rd Grade for me). I wish this information was more readily available when I was going through this. This is something that is extremely important to talk about. I really enjoyed reading about this it helps me to be prepared in case it happens with my daughters which I am hoping is not the case. Thank you.
Jerilee Wei from United States on December 07, 2008:
Very much needed topic to be aware of. Our oldest grandchild is dealing with this and it's hard to keep her age appropriate when the world looks at her as much older.