If the coming-of-age changes you notice in your child make you wonder if your “baby” is literally growing up too fast — it’s probably nothing to worry about.
A report published today from the American Academy of Pediatrics says some early signs of development don’t necessarily mean your child has started puberty.
“I think a lot of times parents get confusing information,” Dr. Paul Kaplowitz, Ph.D., FAAP, the study’s lead author, told Healthline. He is an endocrinologist with the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.
He said that children who develop pubic hair or body odor aren’t necessarily going through puberty. His report notes several recent studies that suggest the onset of breast and pubic hair development are starting earlier than they have in the past.
He sees a lot of children whose parents rush them to the doctor when they notice these changes, but he assures them they are nothing to be alarmed about.
“The majority of these cases are basically normal variations that don’t require extensive testing or treatment,” Kaplowitz said.
Puberty Starts at Different Times
The age a child enters or appears to enter puberty can vary with their ethnicity or obesity status. For example, it can be harder to tell if an overweight girl has developed breasts or simply has extra fat in her breast area. In most cases brought to him by panicked parents, Kaplowitz has found that breast glands have not developed. About 90 percent of the patients he sees don’t require treatment, Kaplowitz noted.
Obesity seems to be contributing to some of these early signs of puberty. A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that children who are heavier at age 5 tend to have lower levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) throughout childhood and reach puberty sooner. The tendency was more significant in girls than in boys.
A report published the same year in Nature found that the age of puberty in girls can be influenced by which parent passed on a subset of “imprinted genes.”
Hormones in meat and environmental factors have also been examined as potential causes of early sexual maturation in children.
A 2010 study led by Dr. Imogen Rogers from the University of Brighton reported that girls who ate more meat and protein at ages 3 and 7 were more likely to start their periods at 12½ years old, than girls who ate less meat and protein. Her report said that 49 percent of girls who had more than 12 portions of meat per week at the age of 7 started their periods by the time they were 12½ years old, compared to only 35 percent of those who ate less than four portions of meat a week.
“The truth is we truly don’t know why boys and girls, girls in particular, are showing signs of sexual maturation earlier,” Kaplowitz said.
He believes that the lack of hard data makes it difficult to say that children are showing signs of puberty, or going into puberty, sooner than they did in the past.
When to Worry
When should you make an appointment to see your doctor?
If your girl is under 8 and you notice she is experiencing rapid growth — perhaps a few inches in a year — or progressive breast enlargement, you should consult a doctor, Kaplowitz said. Boys under 9 that have genital enlargement should also be seen by a physician.
They may be experiencing central precocious puberty (CPP), which can have other medical causes and repercussions. CPP is defined as full activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary gonadal (HPG) axis, or endocrine glands, before age 8 in girls and age 9 in boys.
For now, Kaplowitz wants parents to know what to look for in the event their child could have a serious issue. He also wants to remind them not to worry if they notice certain changes.
“Early pubic hair and body odor does not mean the child is actually in puberty and does not mean the child is going to start their puberty early,” Kaplowitz said.