Why your daughter could start puberty in grade two — and how to help her deal with it
When Lizzie Papadakis* started growing dark hair on her legs at age six, her mom, Anne, wasn’t too concerned. She put it down to her husband’s Mediterranean heritage. But when Lizzie developed underarm hair at age seven, body odour at eight and pubic hair at nine, Anne started worrying. “I thought, what’s going on?” says the Newmarket, Ont., mother, who herself had been a late bloomer. “Is it from hormones in the meat, or what?”
She’s not alone in her worries. While boys are largely “safe” from this growing phenomenon, girls today are developing signs of puberty at seemingly much earlier ages than a generation or two ago. Parents are left wondering what’s happening, what’s normal and how best to deal with little girls who seem to be turning too quickly into women.
Fuelling the fear is a widely publicized study from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which reported last August that breast development in seven- and eight-year-old girls is twice as common today as it was in 1997. In fact, the study found that breast development begins at age seven in 10 percent of white girls, 23 percent of black girls and 15 percent of Hispanic girls.
Puberty in grade two! Should we be freaking out?
For the most part, no, says Jean-Pierre Chanoine, head of the endocrine and diabetes unit at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Very early puberty — or precocious puberty, as doctors call it — should be checked out by your GP or paediatrician to rule out any underlying problems. However, what some parents deem “early” is increasingly categorized as “normal.” A generation ago, doctors considered eight to be the minimum age for normal breast development in girls.
Today, it’s seven. “We don’t call it precocious puberty unless breast development starts before age seven,” says Chanoine. In girls, the usual order of things is breast development, pubic hair, underarm hair, first period; in boys, larger genitals, pubic hair, facial hair, deeper voice. But the order can change, and growth spurts can happen anytime throughout the process. When it comes to precocious puberty, in girls it’s the breast development that counts, and in boys enlarged genitals; doctors don’t worry much about other signs such as BO or even pubic hair. A 2008 University of Calgary study found that in the majority of girls who grow pubic hair before age eight (and boys before age nine), the other markers of puberty will arrive at the normal times.