Children start puberty at different ages based on many factors, including activity level, race, and genes. Precocious puberty can be a sign of a medical condition that calls for a doctor’s attention. Other times, precocious puberty has no apparent reason but can be slowed down with treatment.
In this article, WebMD lets parents know what to look for and when to call the pediatrician about early puberty.
Early Puberty: How Young Is Too Young?
When a child has precocious puberty, she or he starts developing sexual characteristics early, before age 7 to 8, on average, for girls and age 9 for boys.
The exact age is a matter of debate. Some doctors have suggested lowering the official age of precocious puberty. Others say that doing so will lead to not identifying children who would benefit from treatment.
Further complicating matters are racial differences in how soon puberty starts. By the age of 8, 38% of African-American boys and 48% of African-American girls show some signs of puberty. By comparison, 28% of white boys and 14% of white girls have begun to develop by the same age. So far, it’s unclear what portion of this age difference is due to race.
Parents concerned about their children’s development can compare their child’s age to how old they were when they started puberty.
In the end, parents and pediatricians need to look at the child’s development and the many factors surrounding it to determine what defines too early.
Intervene Early or Wait and See?
Parents who think their child has precocious puberty should see their pediatrician. Rarely, early puberty is the first sign of a serious medical condition like a tumor or neurological disorder. Treating the condition can put puberty on hold until the appropriate age. Often puberty simply starts early for no apparent medical reason.
While it may be a relief to know precocious puberty is not usually a sign of a more serious medical condition, kids with precocious puberty may stop growing before they reach their full adult height. They also face possible teasing by other kids.
Bones matures during puberty, and when puberty starts early, the growth spurt begins and ends sooner than normal. At first, children with precocious puberty tower over their friends who haven’t started to grow. But within a few years, they may stand among the shortest in their class. Diagnosing the condition early can help the child’s growth return to the appropriate pre-precocious rate.
What Precocious Puberty Looks Like
Early puberty looks like “normal” puberty, except it starts at a younger age. The signs include breast development, penis and/or testicle growth, rapid jumps in height, pubic or underarm hair, and acne. Suddenly a teenager’s body odor may fill the air. All familiar signs, except for the timing.