Puberty: What to do when it comes early

Early puberty is on the rise, affecting girls at younger ages than ever. Here's how to help your daughter when puberty kicks in early.

Photo: Karin Smeds/Getty Images

What is early puberty?
Today girls are getting their periods as young as age eight, and breast buds and pubic hair as young as six. If a girl begins developing breasts at eight or earlier, or starts her period before age 10, doctors will likely run tests to see if there is a medical reason, such as a tumour, triggering early puberty.

Puberty is happening earlier
Dina Panagiotopoulos, an endocrinologist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, says that girls are developing breasts about a year earlier than they did 20 years ago. A study published in an August 2010 issue of the journal Pediatrics found that by the age of seven, 10 percent of white girls, two percent of Asian girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 23 percent of black girls had started developing breasts.  

The causes of early puberty
There are several causes of early puberty, some proven and some just theorized. Studies have shown that obese girls start puberty earlier, and that exposure to endocrine- (hormone-) disrupting chemicals such as BPA is associated with early puberty in mice. But because this kind of experiment cannot be carried out ethically on humans, there is no definitive evidence that BPA is responsible for early puberty in girls. Other studies suggest a link between soy products and early puberty, but there is no definitive data.

How to stop early puberty
Abnormally early puberty can be halted with medications, but for girls who are early bloomers still within the normal range, Panagiotopoulos recommends promoting an active lifestyle, so that your daughter grows up with a healthy height-to-weight ratio.

What to expect at school
A new adult shape could attract attention your daughter may not be mature enough to handle. Hjelsvold reports that Jodie, one of only three girls with breasts in her class, gets teased by the boys (they snap her bra straps), but she seems to be handling it well. “She thinks it’s stupid they are so focused on boobs,” says Hjelsvold. “I am doing my best to ensure she has a healthy view of her body.”

How to talk about puberty with your child:

Tell it like it is: Be honest with your child about the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty. “If girls are going through puberty earlier than their peers,” warns Calgary child psychologist Cassandra White, “they may feel like they are not ‘normal,’  which can lead to esteem issues or depression.”

Discuss the facts: Have a conversation about the facts of life, share funny stories from your own adolescence.

Celebrate: It’s important to celebrate this transition so that it isn’t framed in a negative way.

A version of this article appeared in our August 2012 issue with the headline “Early bloomers,” p. 56.

Read on: For more information on early puberty, see articles “Growing up too fast” and “Early Puberty.”

Want to talk to other parents about this issue? Join our Kids Health board in our forums>

No Comments