I read an article in USA Today that focused on a little girl named Laila, who entered puberty at the age of six. Yes, that was my reaction, too … six years old! How could this happen? And is there anyone out there doing knowledge translation for the parents of children who enter puberty so early?
Researchers believe a number of reasons are contributing to this phenomenon, including environmental chemicals and estrogen-like hormones found in hard plastics and metal can linings called Bisphenol A, which can affect the adolescent hormone system. Other possible causes include premature birth weights, stress, excessive time spent in front of the television, and obesity.
The CDC reports that an estimated 16.9% of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years are obese. My colleague Shannon’s recent blog discussed two Chicago schools that banned children from bringing their lunches to school. Interesting timing of these two articles – one discussing children throwing away uneaten over-processed “nutritious” school food and the other highlighting obesity as the “clearest influence on the age of puberty.”
After reading the USA Today article and Shannon’s blog, I had a light bulb moment: are we as a society contributing to this growth phenomenon by putting limits on what our children can and can’t eat? I can’t help but feel like we are responsible for this because adults make decisions for children. And adults know best, right? <Cue the “Jeopardy” theme music.>
The article went on to state, “Early puberty increases girls' odds of depression, drinking, drug use, eating disorders, behavioral problems and attempted suicide … (and) at higher risk for breast and uterine cancers, likely because they're exposed to estrogen for a longer period of time.” So, as if adolescence isn’t hard enough already, now young girls are faced with the possibility of serious health risks, as well as social, mental and behavioral problems because they are being “catapulted into adolescence long before their brains are ready for the change.”
Laila’s father, Joe, talked about the sleepless nights he and his wife have had regarding their daughters’ accelerated maturation, and if they are making the right decision about to slow the course of Mother Nature. Laila’s doctors recommended slowing down her development by having her undergo monthly hormone injections. Joe and his wife decided that would be too traumatizing for Laila, because of her fear of needles. They eventually settled on a type of hormone therapy that is implanted beneath the skin once a year through a minor surgery.
To date, Laila has had two implants. She is now nine years old. This option, albeit less frequently applied, is the more invasive procedure and still seems to me as though it would be just as traumatizing for a nine year-old girl. In any case, it’s a grueling decision for any parent to have to make.
While researchers understand the physiological reasons why accelerated maturation or precocious puberty happens, specific causes are often not found. Thus, parents that have children dealing with this disorder are often left with little to no answers about prevention or treatment. The Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health are two reputable agencies that parents can turn to for help. Their websites offer symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatment options, etc. about precocious puberty that can help parents decide the best path to take with their child.
Unfortunately, Laila is not the only little girl being propelled into puberty at an early age. The article states that “about 15% of American girls now begin puberty by age seven.” I have a four year-old daughter who will be five in June. Now I have to wrap my head around the idea of having a serious conversation with my daughter a year from now if Mother Nature decides to knock early on her door …sleepless nights indeed!