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How Early Is Too Early for a Girl to Enter Puberty?

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WebMD Health News

Oct. 24, 2000 -- Jasmine turns 7 next week, but she already has many physical features that people associate with girls closer to their teen years. Ever since she turned 4, Jasmine has surprised her parents with subtle signs of what doctors call precocious puberty. "It scared me to death," says Traci Henderson, her mother.

Precocious puberty, also called early puberty, is a medical condition that doctors have long recognized. It is five or six times more common in girls than boys. But these days, even girls without this condition are entering puberty earlier than their mothers and grandmothers did, often developing breasts and pubic hair several years earlier than what was previously considered the norm.

In years past, girls typically began puberty at age 10 or 11. But a study published three years ago in the journal Pediatrics suggested that it's now normal for girls of 7 (if they're African-American) or 8 (if they're white) to have breast and pubic hair development.

"There is pretty compelling evidence that girls are maturing earlier than in the past," says Paul Kaplowitz, MD, PhD, a pediatric endocrinologist at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

But just how early is too early? If a child shows signs of puberty before age 6 (in African-American girls) or 7 (in white girls), Kaplowitz advises having the child evaluated by a pediatrician, as she may be entering precocious puberty or have another medical condition. Otherwise, it's likely she's just part of a growing contingent of early bloomers.

Researchers don't completely understand what's causing younger and younger girls to show signs of puberty.

Some researchers think it's hereditary. Others credit chemicals in the environment for the trend, says Kaplowitz. "Some think that residues of pesticides -- DDT, PCBs -- are to blame," he says. These pesticides can break down into compounds that may have estrogenic activity. In the lab, he says, the substances have been shown to interact with estrogen-receptor cells. "But no one has shown a clear connection between that and early puberty," he says.

One thing that's very likely playing a role is the increasing trend toward childhood obesity, Kaplowitz tells WebMD. "It's long been known that very overweight girls tend to mature faster at an earlier age," he says. "Thin girls and athletic girls tend to be on the late side." In a study he's preparing to publish, preliminary data support that view.

In rare cases, early signs of puberty might indicate a central nervous system problem, if accompanied by other symptoms, such as headaches and seizures.

Jasmine's parents rushed her to the pediatrician when they noticed she was developing pubic hair at age 4. "The doctor ran a couple of tests, did a bone scan, measured her bones, did blood work ... [and] determined it was precocious puberty," Henderson says.

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