What is Precocious Puberty?
Precocious Puberty: What is it, and what do I need to know?
In recent years, the age at which the average girl begins to go through puberty is lowering. However, some girls experience the onset of puberty very young (before age 8). When this happens, it's known as precocious puberty. This can be distressing for parents, who want to know why their child is showing signs of reproductive development at such an early age, and if there are any health risks involved. Below is what we know so far about precocious puberty, and what to do if your daughter is experiencing it.
The Mayo Clinic states that the cause of precocious puberty is still technically unknown. However, as the age for onset of puberty continues to lower, there are several respected hypotheses. Some doctors and research scientists believe that rising levels of obesity may be a cause, as precocious puberty is more common in girls who are overweight. However, although research is ongoing, a definitive link has yet to be completely established.
Other factors, such as an increased rate of consumption of meat and dairy products in US children have also been considered as possible causes. Some parents and medical professionals have even begun to wonder if animal growth hormones may play a role, but no casual relationship has yet been found.
Very rarely, early onset puberty can be caused by an abnormality in or near the pituitary gland (the gland responsible for the release of hormones involved in growth and development), such as a tumor. Direct intake of hormones (through injection or pills) can also lead to a form of precocious puberty known as peripheral precocious puberty.
Overall, precocious puberty is not a dangerous condition, though there is a slight concern over the effects of increased estrogen exposure. Because increased amounts of the hormone estrogen have been linked to breast cancer, some researchers think that precocious puberty may raise a person's risk of developing cancer later in life, but no significant research has been done.
By and large, the most serious concern regarding precocious puberty is the combination of social and psychological changes a girl will endure. Developing breasts and visible hair (such as underarm hair) at an early age can put girls at risk for teasing or isolation. Appearing visually older than she is may also expose her to more mature situations.
Where to Go from Here
To prevent social confusion, alienation, or potentially predatory situations, it's important for parents to discuss with their daughter what early physical development means, and discuss possible ways to talk about it with friends. It can make parents uncomfortable to have the period talk (or even “the talk”) with their seven year old daughter, and that's completely understandable. But it's vital to help your child explain how her body is changing, as well as the fact that it's changing a year or two before her friends bodies are. Make sure your daughter knows that she can ask you questions about uncomfortable topics, such as shaving, facial hair, tampons, and anything else.
Precocious puberty can be stressful for everyone involved, but it really doesn't need to be. Make sure your daughter knows she's normal and healthy, and above all, loved.