Puberty Starting Age 7 — What’s Going On?
Girls used to start puberty at 12 or 13. A recent study, conducted by authors Louise Greenspan (a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente) and Julianna Deardorff (an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley), found that by the age of 7, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 10 percent of white girls had started to develop breasts.
The authors of The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls have tracked more than 1,200 girls since 2005. They found that the consequences of early puberty can be devastating. Young girls who develop early have a greater incidence of eating disorders, more substance abuse, early sexual activity, depression, and later in life, a greater risk for breast cancer.
The researchers don’t implicate one “smoking gun” that triggers early puberty, but the top culprits include:
Obesity—the excess body fat secretes estrogen, a hormone normally released from the ovaries during puberty, and earlier breasts result.
Sugary drinks—today’s kids are more overweight than previous generations—thanks to the consumption of soda and other sugary drinks as well as processed foods. A Harvard School of Public Health study suggested that girls who drank more sodas were more likely to reach puberty early, regardless of whether they were overweight.
Family stress—a surprising research finding is that girls who grow up in unpredictable households with high levels of conflict and those that suffer sexual abuse reach puberty earlier.
Chemical exposures—our modern world is a chemical stew of hundreds of toxins—from the Bisphenol A (or BPA), widely used in plastic water bottles and in the lining in soda and soup cans, to fire retardants, home cleaners, garden chemicals like Roundup, even air fresheners and scents. Though exposure may be at low doses, when vulnerable children experience hundreds of sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can mimic hormones, disruptions in reproductive development (among other health concerns) become more common.
What can be done to minimize hormone disruption that leads to early puberty? These 5 steps are a good start:
1. Breast feeding appears to help reduce early puberty as does the mother maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy.
2. Teach your children to prefer water (from a glass container!), soy milk, or other nonsweetened drinks. (The researchers note that soy-based products to not hasten puberty as is widely believed.) Since dioxins and other chemicals are often found concentrated in dairy products, minimize your child’s consumption.
3. Provide a warm, stable and stress-free home environment.
4. Minimize your child’s exposure to toxins—start by choosing foods that are fresh or frozen—avoid cooking with canned products; go organic in your garden and avoid dangerous garden chemicals; and say no to anything vinyl or with a synthetic fragrance. These products contain phthalate, especially toxic to the reproductive system.
5. Work with you child’s school to improve school menus and access to candy and soda.
The authors point out that early onset puberty is a complex biological phenomenon that isn’t triggered by a single factor. They suggest making simple changes in your family’s life style to reduce obesity and stress and taking a cautious approach to chemicals in the home and garden—changes that will not only benefit your daughter’s reproductive development but have a positive impact on the whole family.