Precocious Puberty: What's Making Kids Develop Too Fast?
One afternoon, I was sitting in the carpool lane waiting to pick up my youngest daughter. I was watching the stream of fourth graders scrambling to find their parents and searching for my own child, when suddenly I noticed a very striking mature looking girl.
“Wow,” I thought, “she looks like she could be in high school.” My daughter jumped into the car, rolled down the window and began waving frantically yelling, “Megan, Megan, bye!!!” Looking in the rearview mirror, I realized that the girl waving back grinning and shouting “Bye!” was none other than the little girl who looked more like a little woman.
“Who is that?” I asked. “That’s my new friend Megan, she’s really cool.” My daughter announced still dangling out of the window. “She’s in your grade? I probed. “Yeah, she’s in my class. She’s younger than me.” “Younger?” I asked choking on my words. How is that even possible? I wondered. I glanced at my daughter in the mirror who looked very much like a little girl and sighed in relief – hopeful that I had a few more years before she would begin to get the attention of older boys.
According to continuing studies, experts claim that our children are reaching puberty earlier than ever before in recorded history. For many years, the onset of early puberty, known as precocious puberty, was seen mostly in girls, but experts are now saying that the trend likely applies to boys as well.
In precocious puberty, a child’s body begins the hormonal process of maturing far earlier than the normal rate. PP begins before the age of 8 in girls and it includes breast development, the growth of pubic or underarm hair, rapid growth of bones and muscles, acne, mature body odor, and menses. In boys, it begins before 9 and the signs include penis growth, underarm and facial hair, rapid growth, or a growth “spurt,” a deepening of the voice, acne, and mature body odor.
The cause of precocious puberty remains unknown. There’s speculation that certain conditions, such as infections, hormone disorders, tumors, brain abnormalities or injuries, may cause precocious puberty, but it’s still inconclusive. Treatment for precocious puberty typically includes medication to delay further development.
There are a lot of children who display only some symptoms of early puberty – this is known as “partial” precocious puberty. It typically begins in girls somewhere between the ages of 6 months to 3 years, and may only show itself as breast development, eventually disappearing with no other significant physical changes associated with puberty. It’s always a good idea to have our child looked at by a pediatrician if we are concerned that they are showing signs of partial precocious puberty in order to rule out the possibility of true PP.
Could It Be the Environment?
There has been a lot of dialogue about the potential link between early sexual development in children, and the chemicals and hormones in the environment; but nothing conclusive. The main culprit is thought to be xeno-estrogens, which act like steroid hormones potentially forcing some children’s bodies into early puberty. And these estrogen-mimicking chemicals aren’t only detrimental to our children – they can also affect adults, causing decreased sperm quality in men, and disrupted reproductive cycles and ovarian dysfunction in women.
While I wasn’t very vigilant when it came to meat or plastics, I was concerned about bovine growth hormones in milk, so I began feeding both of my babies organic milk once I weaned them off of formula. I still stand by that decision.
This brings up another interesting question to consider if our children are allergic to cow’s milk and we are not breast feeding: Could the hormone-like substances in non-fermented soy products like baby formula cause our children to develop quicker than nature intended them to? I was a soy baby, as was my oldest daughter. As far as I can tell, neither one of us developed any faster than we should have. But I did suffer from early ovarian failure and went through natural menopause in my late 30’s. I will likely never know if there was a connection to the soy.
The reality is that our environment is full of hormone-disrupting chemicals, many of which are plastics. The most common one, Bisphenol or BPA, which is an industrial petrochemical that acts as a synthetic estrogen and is found in plastic bottles, tin can linings, cash register receipts (crazy, right?), and dental sealants. And don’t be fooled by the argument that BPS is a safer alternative to BPA. Whenever possible, stick to drinking out of glass containers, avoid fluoride, and the additive MSG (yes, Chinese food) in order to reduce chemical exposure.
Doing What We Can
With the exception of putting our kids in a plastic bubble (wait... A BPA free glass bubble), it’s virtually impossible to protect our children from every possible hormone-disrupting chemical in their environment. No parent can predict if their child will become a “Megan,” all that we can do to keep our little ones from growing up too quickly is to practice some of these simple rules and then turn the rest over to nature:
- Whenever possible, buy organic produce, organic meat, and avoid all products containing bovine growth hormone.
- Stick to raw and fresh foods, staying away from as much processed and prepackaged food as possible.
- Keep all food stored in glass containers, and don’t use plastic wrap or eat canned foods.
- Buy glass baby bottles and BPA-free sippy cups for our tiny humans, and be careful that their toys, pacifiers, and teething rings are also free of plastics.
- Use only natural cleaning products in our home, and switch over to natural brands of toiletries.
- Avoid artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or any kind of synthetic fragrances.
- Use ceramic or glass cookware in lieu of non-stick cooking pans.
What are your thoughts on precocious puberty, and how do you avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals at home? Share your tips with us in the comments below!
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