Local News

Is Your Child Too Young To Be Going Through Puberty? WRAL's Health Team Investigates

Posted February 26, 2002 12:46 p.m. EST

— Eight-year-olds are just kids, right? Actually, their bodies may already be changing into adults.

Mastering the art of ballet takes practice and discipline. Young dancers learn to control their bodies and gracefully pirouette, but when they enter puberty, it is easy to stumble, and life seems to spin out of control.

Most medical books say puberty begins around age 11 for girls. The most obvious sign is breast development. UNC researcher Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens memorized those stats in college, but the more she worked with young patients, the more she felt those numbers were way off.

"It became pretty clear with girls, that they were developing earlier than what the medical textbooks said," Giddens said.

Four years ago, Giddens, with the help of pediatricians all over the county, launched a study to determine the average age that girls enter puberty. Seventeen-thousand patients later, the results came back.

Giddens' team discovered that the average age for breast development in Caucasian girls was not 11. It was 9 years, nine months. For African-American girls, it was even earlier at 8 years, one month. For the most part, the age when a girl has her first period has remained the same at around age 12-and-a-half.

"That hasn't seemed to change too much in the past 40 years," Duke pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Mary Lee said.

For boys, putting a timetable on puberty is more difficult. Last September, Giddens released a second study that found that boys show the first signs of puberty around age 10, which was six months earlier than previous research indicated, with African-American boys starting at an even earlier age.

Parents see what is going on, but they do not know why it is happening.

"I've heard different theories -- the hormones in milk," said one parent.

Some experts believe it is because of improved nutrition. Others think it is overnutrition.

"On average, the overweight or obese girl will begin pubertal development earlier," Giddens said.

Studies show that certain chemicals in our environment have estrogen-like effects, causing girls to enter puberty.

Girls who grow up without their father also tend to develop earlier. Other speculation surrounds hormone and antibiotic use in meats as well as exposure to sex in the media. Whatever the reason, experts say it is not healthy.

"I don't think that just because we have average ages at 8 or 9 that should be accepted as normal. I don't think nature probably intended girls to be developing so early," Giddens said.

Preliminary research shows that the earlier you enter puberty, the more likely you are to develop certain cancers. It also raises the question of when to have the "talk" with your child.

"We've been open with her, answered her questions and curiosities," said one parent.

"I'm more worried that she's going to get information from other children and other sources that it's OK to do certain things young," said another parent.

Parents said since they cannot stop nature, it is more important than ever to be part of their child's life.

Some children start developing at an extremely early age due to certain hormonal problems. If your child is five or younger and starts showing signs of breast development or body hair, they should see an endocrinologist. The same is true if they are developing very quickly.

There has been some controversy over Gidden's results, but the pediatricians and endocrinologists WRAL talked to agree with her findings.