Why is puberty coming earlier for girls today?

Effects of Premature Puberty

Puberty can be difficult at any age, but when a young child is faced with monumental changes, it can cause psychological stress.
Puberty can be difficult at any age, but when a young child is faced with monumental changes, it can cause psychological stress.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

What happens when a girl grows breasts and sprouts body hair before she's even graduated from elementary school? She can become confused about the changes in her body and embarrassed when other children tease her about being different.

Little girls are not ready to handle the emotional changes that come with puberty. As a result, studies have found that girls who have undergone precocious puberty are more likely to have psychological problems, unintended pregnancies and substance-abuse problems than their peers [sources: Kaplowitz and Barnes].

Early puberty can also have a big effect on the body. Girls who begin puberty sooner than normal experience an early growth spurt and are taller than their peers at first. But because their bones stop growing after puberty, they never reach their full height potential. There is also an increased risk of breast cancer with early puberty, because estrogen production starts sooner and breast tissue is exposed to the hormone for a longer period of time. Girls who get their period before age 8 are also at greater risk for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which cysts grow in the ovaries and can interfere with fertility.

Going through puberty a few years before everyone else can be hard on a girl. Fortunately, the process often reverses itself, and if it doesn't, treatments are available to put a halt to puberty until it's the right time for it to begin.

­Treatme­nt begins with a specialist in growth and hormonal disorders, called a pediatric endocrinologist. The doctor will do a thorough exam that includes hormone tests and possibly brain imaging scans to check for tumors or other abnormalities.

How precocious puberty is treated depends on its cause. If a medical condition is causing the problem, it will be treated with medication or surgery. When there isn't any medical cause, the doctor may prescribe LHRH or GnRH agonist therapy. These man-made hormones block the body's production of the sex hormones that lead to early puberty. Often the medicines are given as a monthly injection. The child will stay on medication until she reaches the normal age for puberty.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Barnes, Erin. "Before They're Ready." E: the Environmental Magazine. Mar/Apr 2008, Volume 19, issue 2: pgs. 40-41.
  • Carel, Jean-Claude and Juliane Léger. "Precocious Puberty." New England Journal of Medicine. May 29, 2008. Vol. 358, Issue 22, pg. 2366.
  • Childs, Dan. "Growing Up Too Fast: Precocious Puberty's Gene Link." ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=4286722
  • Davison, Kirsten Krahnstoever, Elizabeth J. Susman, Leann Lipps Birch. "Percent Body Fat at Age 5 Predicts Earlier Pubertal Development Among Girls at Age 9." Pediatrics. Volume 111, Number 4, April 2003: pgs. 815-821.
  • Eugster, Erica A and Mark R. Palmert. "Precocious Puberty." The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. September 2006, volume 91, issue 9.
  • Herman-Giddens, Marcia E., et al. "Secondary Sexual Characteristics and Menses in Young Girls Seen in Office Practice: A Study from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network." Pediatrics. April 1997, Volume 99, Number 4: pgs. 505-512.
  • Kaplowitz, Paul B. "Precocious Puberty." eMedicine. Sept. 28, 2007. http://www.emedicine.com/ped/TOPIC1882.HTM
  • KidsHealth. "Precocious Puberty." http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/sexual/precocious.html
  • Lemonick, Michael D. "Teens before Their Time." Time, Oct. 22, 2000. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,58388-1,00.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Precocious Puberty." http://www.mayoclinic.com/print/precocious-puberty/DS00883/METHOD=print&DSECTION=all
  • Merck Manuals. "Precocious Puberty." http://www.merck.com/mmpe/print/sec19/ch282/ch282h.html
  • National Institutes of Health. "Precocious Puberty." http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/precocious_puberty.cfm
  • Sellman Sherrill. "Precocious Puberty: Teens before Their Time." Total Health. December 2003/January 2004, Volume 25, Issue 6:pgs. 40-41.
  • Snopes.com. "Youngest Mother." http://www.snopes.com/pregnant/medina.asp
  • Teles, Milena Gurgel et al. "A GPR54-Activating Mutation in a Patient with Central Precocious Puberty." The New England Journal of Medicine. Feb. 14, 2008. http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/358/7/709
  • Wanjek, Christopher. "The Truth behind Early Puberty." Sept. 4, 2007. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/111/4/815.pdf