Girls hit puberty earlier than ever, and doctors aren't sure why
By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
Updated 23m ago
"All of our friends told us to cherish every moment," Claudia says. "When I started planning her first birthday party, I remember crying and wondering where the time had gone."
Even so, Laila's parents never expected their baby to hit puberty at age 6.
They first noticed something different when Laila was 3, and she began to produce the sort of body odor normally associated with adults. Three years later, she grew pubic hair. By age 7, Laila was developing breasts.
Without medical treatment, doctors warned, Laila could begin menstruating by age 8 — an age when many kids are still trying to master a two-wheeler. Laila's parents, from the Los Angeles area, asked USA TODAY not to publish their last name to protect their daughter's privacy.
Doctors say Laila's story is increasingly familiar at a time when girls are maturing faster than ever and, for reasons doctors don't completely understand, hitting puberty younger than any generation in history.
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About 15% of American girls now begin puberty by age 7, according to a study of 1,239 girls published last year in Pediatrics. One in 10 white girls begin developing breasts by that age — twice the rate seen in a 1997 study. Among black girls, such as Laila, 23% hit puberty by age 7.
"Over the last 30 years, we've shortened the childhood of girls by about a year and a half," says Sandra Steingraber, author of a 2007 report on early puberty for the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group. "That's not good."
Girls are being catapulted into adolescence long before their brains are ready for the change — a phenomenon that poses serious risks to their health, says Marcia Herman-Giddens, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
"This is an issue facing the new generation," says Laila's doctor, Pisit "Duke" Pitukcheewanont, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, who treats girls with early puberty. "Many parents don't know what is going on."
Researchers don't completely understand why the age of puberty is falling, Herman-Giddens says. Most agree that several forces are at work, from obesity to hormone-like environmental chemicals. There's no evidence that boys are maturing any earlier, says Paul Kaplowitz, author of Early Puberty in Girls.
But data clearly show that girls once matured much later, probably because poor diets and infectious diseases left them relatively thin, Steingraber says. Girls' lack of body fat may have sent a message to their bodies that they weren't yet ready to carry a pregnancy, she says.