Girls growing up faster

It's the "awkward phase" we all remember, but for many young girls, puberty is happening sooner than expected.  In fact, it's hitting girls a year sooner than it did ten years ago, but it may be more than just how they look.  New research shows girls are hitting puberty younger than ever before. 

"The bulk of evidence shows, at least in part, it is due to girls gaining weight earlier," explained Abby Hollander, MD, at Washington University School of Medicine.

One study found African American girls started developing breasts before age nine.  For Hispanic girls, it was nine years, four months. And for White and Asian girls, it was nine years, eight months. The heavier girls started developing at younger ages.

"[It's] due to a lot of intake of poorly nutritious high calorie foods, fast foods, and reduced activities,"Hollander explained. 

Other research has shown substances in the environment may be contributing to earlier puberty.  Chemicals such as phthalates and BPA, which are found in some plastics, are known to be endocrine disrupters.  Also, lavender and tea tree oils may act as hormones. 

"We see young babies that are one and two years old that have been using the lavender bath soap and have developed breast tissue as a result of that," said Hollander.

Early puberty has been linked to psychosocial problems, risky behaviors, and depression. Girls who start their periods earlier are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, and because puberty causes the body to make estrogen earlier – growth may be affected.

"Does this mean that they're going to stop their growth at an early age and not really get to be as tall as they had a genetic potential to be?" Hollander asked.  

A recent study also found signs of puberty in American boys that was up to two years earlier than previously reported.  On average, African American boys hit puberty at age nine, and for Whites and Hispanics, it was age 10.

It's a phenomenon that researchers hope to learn more about, so our girls can focus on being girls, longer.

Signs of Early Puberty:

Girls: For girls, breast development is often the first sign. Other signs Include:

  • Body odor
  • Pubic hair
  • Acne
  • Growth spurt
  • Menses (rarely)

Boys: For boys, the first sign of puberty is usually testicular growth. Other signs include:

  • Body odor
  • Pubic hair
  • Penile growth
  • Acne
  • Axillary hair
  • Facial hair
  • Growth spurt
  • Deepening of voice

Preventing Early Puberty:

Genetic factors do play a role in triggering early puberty, but parents can delay the environmental causes by taking preventative measures: