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Blossoming Too Early?

American girls are reaching puberty younger than ever. Why?

Why Is the Age of Puberty Dropping? continued...

Others attribute the drop to in increase in childhood obesity. "My own bias is that a major contributor to earlier puberty is the increasing prevalence of obesity over the past 25 years -- especially in 6- to 11-year-old girls," says Paul Kaplowitz, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Charlottesville, Va., and author of the LWPES report. "It has long been known that overweight girls tend to mature earlier and thin girls tend to mature later."

As for African-American girls maturing even earlier, Boepple believes this may be due to a higher cultural tendency toward obesity, while Kaplowitz hypothesizes that there may be genetic differences within the African-American population that predispose them to an earlier onset.

If a child is showing early signs of puberty, an evaluation by an endocrinologist is recommended to rule out other risks. "In a few cases, early puberty can be indicative of a tumor of the reproductive organs or that the brain has erroneously triggered the production of estrogen," says Boepple. "The great majority of girls are just developing early. But if a girl has unusual symptoms including headaches, abdominal pain, and weight loss, or if there isn't the growth spurt associated with puberty, there may be trouble."

Preparing Little Girls for Womanhood

While researchers speculate on reasons for the drop, parents must contend with broaching the subject of sexual development with children while they are still in grade school. According to Helen Egger, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Duke University's department of psychiatry, once you've noticed signs, it's important to let your child take the lead. Egger's own daughter started showing signs of puberty at 8, so she gave her daughter some books about puberty geared to pre-teens as a catalyst for discussion. Then she waited for her daughter to approach her with questions. "Our daughter wanted to talk about some of the topics that the books brought up, such as menstruation and breast development," Egger says. "She recognized on her own that her body was changing before her friends', and that naturally led to discussions about how she felt about that."

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