Puberty can be confusing and uncomfortable for a budding adolescent. But what happens when that process starts as early as age 6? More and more young girls under the age of 10 are showing the first signs of puberty, causing some parents to worry, even going so far as to use hormone-suppressing drugs. And doctors aren't just alarmed — they're stumped. Here, a look at the puzzling issue:
Are 6-year-olds really hitting puberty?
Take the case of 9-year-old Ainsley Sioux in Fort Collins, Colo. At age 6, she began growing pubic hair. By the time she hit third-grade, she was the tallest child in her class and the "curves of her Levi's matched her mother's," says Elizabeth Weil in The New York Times Magazine.
And this is part of a trend?
According to Weil's report — "Puberty before age 10: A new 'normal'?" — Ainsley is part of a growing tide of young girls forced to confront the mounting pressures of puberty at an increasingly young age. A large study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 10 percent of white girls, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 2 percent of Asian girls start growing breasts by the age of 7. But that earlier breast development hasn't generally been accompanied by an early first period.
Why are some girls developing earlier?
Researchers are still trying to figure that out. Typically, "girls who go through puberty early fall into two camps," says Weil: "Girls with diagnosable disorders like central precocious puberty, and girls who simply develop on the early side of the normal curve." Young "girls who are overweight are more likely to enter puberty early than thinner girls," says Weil. And some environmental chemicals, like the flame retardant PBB, can alter a young girl's timing by changing her hormone levels. Stress "can disrupt puberty timing as well."
What can parents do?
Some mothers have their daughters train for 5K runs, as exercise can help prevent early puberty. Others remove hormone-laden milk and meat from their homes. In the case of young Ainsley Sioux, her mother, Tracy, even tried giving her a supplement intended to help the body balance its hormones. It didn't work. Perhaps the best bet for parents, says Weil, is to be open with their daughters about what's happening to their bodies; be "brutally honest" yet "kind." Let them know that everyone goes through the awkwardness of puberty at some point — some sooner than others.
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