Abby: “Mom, I just noticed during my bath that I have a few hairs . . . down there.”
Mom: “Wow! Well, remember last spring when we talked about how your breasts were starting to grow? I had mentioned that you’d probably get pubic hair soon.”
Abby: “I know, but I wish it wasn’t happening. I don’t think the other second-grade girls are getting them.”
Mom: “It must feel really confusing. C’mon, let’s go to your room and talk about it.”
More girls and their parents are having conversations like this one. One in seven white girls and nearly one of every two African-American girls now start developing breasts and pubic hair by age 8, according to a 1997 study of 17,000 American girls aged 3 to 12.
The trend concerns many researchers, girl advocates, parents, and girls themselves. Many girls resent and fear these changes and the reactions to their maturing bodies, and some parents are saddened by what seems like a premature loss of childhood. Concerned adults are wondering about the best ways of helping girls with early puberty.
Experts advise parents to provide lots of support as soon as a daughter begins maturing, by explaining these physical and emotional changes to her. “It’s so important to reassure your daughter and begin the first of many conversations that will occur as she changes,” says Dr. Helen Egger, a Duke University assistant professor and child psychiatrist whose own daughter began maturing at 8.
Can We Prevent Early Puberty?
The bad news is that no one knows for sure why girls are maturing earlier, and there’s evidence that early maturers may face an increased risk of ovarian and breast cancer, as well as earlier menopause. The good news is that changes that may prevent or slow early maturity would benefit any girl.
For example, some studies indicate that many early-maturing girls are heavier; and as rising child obesity rates indicate, this describes more and more American girls. Encouraging girls to eat a healthy variety of foods and get plenty of exercise might be one answer.
Exercise fuels the release of feel-good endorphins and, particularly for girls, boosts a sense of physical competency.
Another strong suspect in early maturity are the growth hormones given to animals and present in conventionally raised meat and milk.
Buying organic foods whenever possible is a good idea, as is investing in a tap purifier for drinking water. Synthetic hormones like estrogen, which spurs sexual development, are present in the drinking water supply, as are hormones from animal waste runoff. (The human hormones in the water supply come from birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy; about half of these pills’ ingredients are passed through the body in urine). These hormones are not removed by municipal water treatment, report studies such as one released by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Many scientists blame early maturity on hormone disruptors-chemicals that mimic the effects of hormones, particularly estrogen. Among the dozens of hormone-mimicking chemicals used in insecticides, plastics, and household products, phthalates are a particular suspect. Studies show that hormone-disrupting chemicals can cause premature maturity among animals, as well as other disturbing effects such as extreme sex organ malfunctions and hermaphroditism.
Early maturing girls in Puerto Rico, which leads the world in early puberty incidence, showed very high levels of phthalates in a 2000 study. Women of child-bearing age have the highest levels among Americans of phthalates in their blood, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Many blame phthalates, whose presence is common in beauty products (such as perfume and deodorant) used by this age group, as well as household products such as air freshener and plastic wrap. Families may want to consider alternatives to plastics (phthalates are widely used as plastics softeners) and investigate alternatives to conventional beauty and household products.
One study linked girls’ early maturity to extra stress they’d experienced, such as mothers with mood disorders. The authors theorize that as an evolutionary strategy, humans may gear up to reproduce earlier when living under adverse situations.
Finally, other researchers speculate that premature puberty is influenced by the onslaught of sexualized images aimed at younger and younger girls, and expectations that they act older at younger ages.
University of North Carolina researcher Marcia Herman-Giddens, who studied early maturity, says that sexual images have an effect on adult sex hormones, so why not on kids’ hormones?
When She Does Mature Early
Medical specialists generally agree that girls should be seen by a doctor if their breasts or pubic hair start growing before age 8. In about 4 percent of cases, a tumor, cyst, or other abnormality may be at fault. Parents may need to make sure their doctor answers all their concerns. After the 1997 study appeared, a leading pediatric endocrinologist society recommended that the ages be lowered for what’s considered normal for breast budding and pubic hair. Other endocrinologists fear that now too many doctors, following those recommendations, wil brush off parental concerns about early signs of maturity, and thus miss a potential problem. Herman-Giddens concurs.
“I didn’t intend for the study to result in early maturity being considered ‘normal,'” she notes. “I wanted more attention on the causes and possible prevention of it.”
Even if nothing is medically amiss, some doctors might prescribe a hormone-suppressing drug, such as Lupron, that slows maturity, often because of concern that a girl may not reach an average adult height if she matures early.
However, many other doctors advise against these expensive and painful injections, since evidence shows that most early maturing girls reach a normal height without medication.
What Parents Can Do
After checking out health concerns, parents themselves play the most important role, by sensitively communicating with a daughter, and helping her deal with any effects of early puberty, from purchasing sanitary napkins to dealing with unwanted attention from boys and men, including family members.
Parents should be ready to acknowledge and explore all feelings the girl–and they themselves–are experiencing. “There’s often some sadness that something everyone looked forward to celebrating later is happening now,” notes Egger. “It doesn’t seem right to congratulate her and say, ‘Now you’re becoming a woman’ because she’s not a woman, or even a teenager.”
A girl can be cheered if you remind her that she is the age she is, regardless of how her body is changing. Encourage her to continue pastimes she enjoys, such as playing with dolls, and make the activities surrounding her maturing, such as bra shopping, upbeat.
Also, talk with the school nurse to make sure your daughter knows she has a supportive person at school.
Girls are also reassured when parents talk about her physical maturing as a practical matter; something every girl goes through, albeit at different times. Keep your conversations matter-of-fact. As soon as your daughter shows signs of maturing, she’ll need specific information about her body. Parents should casually present some age-appropriate information, as opposed to scheduling “the big talk.”
“I got a few books that were good for younger girls, and told my daughter to check them out,” recalls Egger. “She said, ‘Oh mom, I already know this stuff,’ but then she devoured them, and we had a foundation to begin talking about it.”
The best information and books address all aspects of maturing, rather than just menstruation. For example, you’ll want her to know about other hormonally induced changes that may occur, such as increasing body odor and moodiness. As for sexuality, keep information age-appropriate. “Don’t overload her with too much information at one time,” says Egger. Still, she emphasizes, be prepared to have continuing conversations that introduce more information.”
Beyond Buying Books
Girls need to feel knowledgeable and prepared about issues such as safe touching and harassing or abusive behavior, as well as sex-education basics, says Egger. Don’t neglect discussions about the role of media and cultural trends that aim to sexualize girls at a younger age. It can help explain why some boys act inappropriately, and why some children may tease early-maturing girls. Keep discussions at a simple level, but encourage questions. “A good time to bring up a topic is at a quiet, private time, such as driving somewhere with her, or at bedtime,” notes Egger. “It helps establish a comfortable place where girls are more inclined to bring up things with you.”
Some early-maturing girls react to their body changes by desiring to return to a girlish body and simpler times. Occasionally this can result in dieting or self-esteem slides. Take prompt steps to preempt any eating disorders, and remind her of how girls and women are happy and fulfilled regardless of their shapes.
Fathers may also have ambivalent or negative reactions to an early-maturing daughter; yet their support is crucial at this time.
“Some dads who had been comfortable interacting with their daughters and roughhousing with them or hugging them may stop such activities when girls start looking older,” says Egger. “It can be really devastating for girls.”
Moms can help their partners articulate their feelings privately, and encourage them to continue supportive and affectionate behavior toward their daughters.
Parents of early-maturing girls face some challenges, but the bottom line message is no different than it is for any other daughter.
“Girls need to know that no matter how their bodies look, they are the person they are,” says Egger. “And that’s the wonderful thing to celebrate.”
Helen Cordes is a Texas writer, a Daughters advisory board member, and the mother of two girls.