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Precocious Puberty (Early Puberty)

What is precocious puberty?
Precocious puberty means having the signs of puberty (development of breasts, testes, pubic and underarm hair; body odor; menstrual bleeding; and increased growth rate) earlier than usual. Precocious puberty is puberty that starts before age 8 in a girl or 9 in a boy.

What is puberty?
Puberty is the beginning of sexual maturity. Puberty is the period when a child changes physically, hormonally, and sexually, and becomes able to reproduce.

What is adolescence?
Adolescence is the period of transition between puberty and adulthood.

Are there sex and race differences in when puberty starts?
Yes, there are differences. The normal age range for puberty in girls is 9-16, while in boys it is 13-15. Precocious puberty is more common in girls than boys. In boys, it is much more likely to be caused by an underlying disease. However, American boys are also entering puberty at a younger age than they did just decades ago [1a]

Other studies have shed light on racial differences in precocious puberty, with African-American girls maturing earlier as a group than white girls. There are also some racial differences among boys.

This landmark study of girls found racial differences in age of onset of puberty.

What causes precocious puberty?
Most cases of precocious puberty have no known cause. In some cases, the pituitary gland, which regulates the release of most of the body's hormones, signals the ovaries and testicles to begin hormone production prematurely. Signs of puberty may also appear early because of problems with adrenal gland, ovary or testicle function. Your child's doctor may want to do some tests to find out if there is an underlying medical condition. Some causes of early puberty include congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), McCune-Albright Syndrome, and spina bifida with hydrocephalus. Find out about gonadotropin-independent precocious puberty (also called pseudo-precocious puberty).

Some possible underlying causes of precocious puberty are thought to be obesity [1b], social factors, and environmental contamination.  In addition radiation, such as for cancer treatment, can lead to early puberty.  We are finding out more every day about chemicals in our environment, including personal care products, household products and cleaners, and foods, and the ways they disrupt our endocrine system.  Looking at studies done with animals and humans, many of these “endocrine disruptors” seem to play a role in changing puberty timing. The timing and amount of exposure to the suspect chemicals need more study to better understand how they affect timing of puberty [1c]

Should my child see their doctor about early signs of puberty?
If you suspect your child might be going through puberty early, you should bring them for a check up.

How does early puberty affect physical growth and development?
Kids grow fast during puberty. If they gain a lot of height early, they stop growing earlier, and tend to be shorter as adults.

How does early puberty affect kids in other ways?
It's always hard to be different, and developing an adult-looking body earlier than your peers can put a lot of pressure on kids. Both boys [3], and girls [4] can have a tough time when they go through pubertal changes early. Your child may be teased, and may have body image or self-esteem problems. They may also be confused about what is happening to their body, and may have unfamiliar emotions.

Girls who mature early may enter into dating and sexual activity earlier, and may even marry earlier than their classmates [5]. Early-maturing girls may also have more behavior problems and a greater risk for substance abuse and suicide [6], [7].

If you are concerned about your child's behavior or coping, talk to your child's doctor or school staff, and consider getting professional counseling to help them through the difficult time.

What is the treatment for precocious puberty?
You will need to talk with your child's doctor about whether treatment is a good idea for your child. This Magic Foundation article, Precocious Puberty, has helpful information about what is going on with your child's hormones, and about how precocious puberty is treated. Nafarelin and leuprolide are two medications used to treat early puberty.

What can I do to help my child?
Make sure your child understands that everyone will go through the same changes, but that they happen earlier in some kids and later in others. Encourage your child to take part in regular physical or social activities and give them openings to discuss with you any worries or concerns.

Share the following articles written for kids with your child, and be available to your child, in case they should need to talk about what they are going through.

And be sure to get professional help if that seems to be what's needed. If you're not sure, talk with your child's doctor or school counselor.

Where can I find more information and support?

Related topics on YourChild:

Related YourChild podcasts:

References

Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, R.N. and Randall Phelps, M.D., Ph.D. Reviewed by faculty and staff at the University of Michigan

Updated November 2012

 

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