Girls Starting Puberty Younger

I think this is the type of headline no Dad wants to read. Most of us Dads would be happy for our  girls to start puberty at about 15, and then start finding boys interesting at about  21. So the news from Europe that the average age of the onset of puberty has now fallen to 9 years old is slightly distressing.

A study by the Department of Growth and Reproduction at the University Hospital in Copenhagen has found that the breast development in a sample of 1,000 girls began on average at the age of 9 years and 10 months. A similar study in 1991 found the same developments taking place a year later. While the research was conducted in Europe it has been reported that experts believe the trend is consistent with observations in England and America.

This means in the space of a generation onset age of puberty has fallen by a year.  And note we are talking about the average age, not the earliest age.  Other studies in the US have found that early stages of puberty (beast budding and light pubic hair) is being frequently observed in girls 6-8 years old.

To put this in context, in the 1960s the average onset of puberty was 12.5 in girls and 14 for boys. Way back in the 19th century, girls reached puberty at around the age of 15, and boys as old as 17.

Causes

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, did not form any conclusions about the reason for the lowering of the onset age, but did conclude it must be due to external factors.

While there is no consensus about exactly what the external factors are, there are several  prominent theories.

  • Chemicals in Plastic Containers. The artificially produced chemicals, notably bisphenol A, which is found in the lining of tin cans and babies’ feeding bottles is considered to be effecting the sexual development of children. Research teams are investigating to see if a direct link can be drawn between early sexual maturation and bisphenol A.
  • Diet. There has long been a school of thought that the increased amount of food consumer by children in western societies may be the cause. Particular attention has been given to the link between rising obesseity levels and decreased age of puberty – but the nature of the causal is not clear. Another diet link being explored is the increased consumption of meat. The University of Bristol study, published in the latest issue of Public Health Nutrition, shows that girls who ate more meat and protein at the ages of 3 and 7 were more likely to have started puberty early. But again the research stops short of drawing any firm conclusions.
  • Lifestyle. There are other theories about more sedentary lifestyles and increased chemical consumption via processed and fast food, however there is little in the way of evidence for these theories.

Concerns

Besides Dad’s being big sooks about shopping for training bra’s years earlier than hoped, there are other genuine concerns about puberty starting earlier.  These reasons are both physical and social.

Physically scientists are concerned about the early exposure of to oestrogen. Longer exposure to oestrogen, increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and heart disease.

Socially the concerns are that girls will be faced with teenage issues before they are emotionally ready to deal with them. We know from past research that girls who mature early often struggle with romantic attention and pressure from older males . This only compounds the challenges faced in an increasingly sex saturated culture.

What to Do?

Well there is little that can be done to stop the forces  of nature doing their thing, but there are a couple of steps adults can take.

Firstly don’t wait until 13 to talk to your kids about the facts of life, it could be a little late by then.

Secondly watch out for young girls who are physically developing more rapidly than they are emotionally, and be sure to provide protective framework for them.

 
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