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All about early puberty in girls and boys

Parents are becoming increasingly concerned about their children entering puberty too early. Here's what you need to know about early puberty.

While all children are different, according to the National Institutes of Health, puberty usually begins in girls between eight and 13 years of age, and in boys between nine and 14 years of age.

However, some children hit puberty earlier. Puberty is considered to be early in boys before age eight and girls before nine years old. This is sometimes called “precocious puberty”.

What is precocious puberty?

Precocious puberty (early puberty) occurs when your child’s body matures at a higher and earlier rate than usual. While this does not necessarily imply that your child is ill, it is important to understand why. In truth, the onset of puberty had been slowly devolving for a while but it has only been in recent years that it has taken such a sharp drop and has begun to happen universally.

Sexual and emotional development

Simply put, the body is becoming fully suited for reproduction, but that doesn’t mean emotional development is equally advanced. At one point, sexual and emotional development both occurred in adolescence as boys and girls entered their teen years.

Children as young as six have sexually developed bodies long before their minds are able to comprehend what is happening. This can be dangerous, as it can leave children more susceptible to sexual abuse and can lead them to experiment and, for girls, even become pregnant at extremely young ages. Parents are dealing with a whole new host of problems as a result and doctors are handling medical issues they hadn’t seen before.

Causes of precocious puberty

But what is behind this drastic change in the onset of puberty, you may ask? As the age of children entering puberty has dropped, scientists have looked into the subject to try and determine what might cause these kinds of changes. The exact answers are still a mystery but they have been able to pinpoint a couple of factors related to modern life which might hold a key.

A word on genetics

In some children, an unusual genetic mutation can cause the release of sex hormones. This release can lead to early puberty. It’s possible that a parent or sibling has a similar genetic problem.

Certain medical conditions

Certain medical conditions, including hypothyroidism – a common condition where the thyroid doesn’t create and release enough thyroid hormone into your bloodstream – can trigger the development of early puberty. Complications from the condition could lead to abnormal production of hormones. Such complications are believed to be associated with precocious puberty.

An increase in childhood obesity

One factor is the increasing incidence of childhood obesity. As the neurotransmitters which control the reproductive system are also linked to appetite, it is not surprising that there would be a connection between obesity and the onset of puberty. The sedentary lifestyle practised by many children today leaves them open to gaining weight, which in turn can lead to the onset of puberty at an earlier age.

Exposure to chemicals and toxins

Another possible cause of early puberty is exposure to a host of chemicals. Everything from plastic baby bottles to food wrappers can contain some level of harmful chemicals which can cause a variety of physiological problems, including triggering early puberty.  Even some supposedly user-friendly herbal products can have damaging effects in pre-pubescent children.

There is still much to be learned about what causes the onset of puberty but this much is known: the more we expose our children to the so-called “comforts” of our modern lifestyle, the more we may be leaving them open to long-term physical and emotional problems.  

When to get help

If your child exhibits any of the following indicators of early sexual maturation, consult your doctor:

  • breast development
  • rapid height growth
  • menstruation
  • acne
  • enlarged testicles or penis
  • pubic or underarm hair

If your child has precocious puberty, your doctor will be able to offer guidance or refer you to a specialist in growth and hormonal disorders in children.

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