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Blossoming Too Early?

American girls are reaching puberty younger than ever. Why?

WebMD Feature

April 3, 2000 (Bellevue, Wash.) -- Like many girls who enter puberty earlier than most, Kathy Pitts was confused and scared when she got her period at 9. "My mother never mentioned the changes that go along with puberty -- maybe she thought I was too young," says Pitts, now 35 and the mother of a 9-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter in Bellevue, Wash. "It would have really helped if my mom had talked to me about what to expect."

These days, Pitts would have had plenty of company. More young girls are showing signs of puberty as early as 7 or 8 and beginning to menstruate two to three years later. As a result, parents are increasingly faced with the difficult task of talking to young children about topics that had traditionally been reserved for preteens and teens.

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While previous studies have found that girls typically began showing signs of puberty at 10 to 11, a new report by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society (LWPES), a nationwide network of physicians headquartered in Stanford, Calif., suggests that it is normal for white girls as young as 7 and black girls as young as 6 to start developing breasts. This conclusion was based on a study of 17,000 girls between the ages of 3 and 12 conducted by the Pediatric Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of 1,500 pediatricians nationwide and published in the April 1997 issue of Pediatrics.

"This study is significant because it gives us a marker for when parents should be concerned about physical development that is truly too early and may be a sign of a hormonal imbalance," says Paul Boepple, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at Harvard Medical School. "It also gives parents a heads-up that they need to talk about the physical and emotional changes of puberty with kids possibly as young as age 5."

Why Is the Age of Puberty Dropping?

Nobody knows for certain why girls are entering puberty earlier, but the most popular theory involves insecticides, such as PCB, which can break down into compounds that may have estrogenic activity in young girls, thus triggering the onset of puberty.

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