One day a few years ago, Marilyn Saunders noticed that her 8 ½-year-old daughter Susan was starting to develop small breasts and pubic hair.
It seemed odd to Saunders (not her real name), a 43-year-old mother from New York's Long Island, since she herself didn’t mature until she was older.
Her doctor told her not to worry: Early onset of puberty is now considered the norm by most pediatricians.
According to research first published in the medical journal Pediatrics in April of 1997, the age of the onset of puberty is getting earlier for girls, with the average age of either breasts or pubic hair showing up as 9.7 years for Caucasians and 8.1 years for African-Americans.
Before this study of 17,000 girls — evaluated by their pediatricians during routine examinations — the norm for puberty onset was considered to be 11 years old, or one year later for white girls and two years later for African-Americans.
In October 1999, a group of pediatricians redefined when puberty occurs in girls, so doctors could better identify when it was abnormal.
What can be causing this premature pubescence? Researchers have many theories, including an increase in obesity among children, low birth weight, absent fathers, unrelated males in the household, a sedentary lifestyle, chemicals that act as endocrine disrupters and the sexualization of children by the media.
Some research indicates that overweight girls have a tendency to reach puberty earlier. Other work indicates girls may be exposed to pheromones, or sexual hormones, from unrelated men, such as stepfathers, prompting them to sexual development. Children who live in families without fathers may be experiencing stress, bringing about early puberty. Another theory is that the increase in images of sex on television fosters sexual maturity, in a way that food stimulates salivation.
“The picture is more complicated than a single cause or a single effect,” says Jeffrey Peterson Myers, director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and co-author of Our Stolen Future, a book on endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Myers spoke today at news conference on this issue in Washington. “There are different factors playing a different role in different people.”
Researchers convened the news conference to bring attention to parents, educators, pediatricians and others, about this issue. They also called for more studies to understand how these different factors might be contributing to this problem.
“No one can really think that little girls in second or third or fourth grade should be developing breasts,” says Diana Zuckerman, a psychologist and executive director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families.
This is the age, she says, when youngsters are being taught how many quarters are in a dollar. “These are young kids,” she says.
“How can you begin to explain to them why they might become moody or look different compared to other girls their age?” says Zuckerman. “Or why older boys might be interested in them? Are the teenage boys being nice, or flirting, or coming on to them? Even adult women sometimes have problems with these issues.”
If these children do not become aware of their blossoming sexuality, then they might become victims of sexual predators who see them as vulnerable, Zuckerman says.