Watching our children mature and grow can be bittersweet-we love to see the people they are becoming, but also miss the sweet little kids they once were. If your young child begins to show those first physical signs of puberty at a very young age, it can be frightening and worrisome. But how young is too young? Early onset puberty or precocious puberty is when children begin to show physical signs of puberty before age 7 or 8 (for girls) or age 9 (for boys). Precocious puberty is much more common in girls than in boys, and has a variety of causes.
Precocious puberty can be divided into several types-rapid (more common amongst younger children), slow, unsustained (puberty begins and then stops), and partial (only one sign of puberty, such as hair growth, occurs). If you suspect that your child may be experiencing early puberty, make an appointment with your pediatrician or with a pediatric endocrinologist. Those who seem to have partial precocious puberty should also see a doctor to rule out "full" precocious puberty. Most children who experience early puberty are otherwise healthy and will grow up to lead perfectly normal lives; but the cause of any child's early puberty should be investigated, as many of the causes can and should be treated. If no cause can be found, a hormone therapy that stops development may be an option.
Possible Causes of Early Puberty
Genetics--Do many boys or girls mature early in mom's or dad's families? Your child may simply be in the early range of normal. Your pediatrician can help make the determination.
Ovarian cysts (girls)--Yes, even young girls can get ovarian cysts, and the hormones produced can cause early puberty.
Hypothyroidism--Hypothyroidism is treatable. In the United States, it is commonly tested for at birth.
Hormone-secreting tumors--Most commonly found on the adrenal glands or the pituitary gland, these tumors secrete the hormones associated with puberty, and should be treated.
External exposure to hormones--The ingestion of some steroids, oral contraceptives and nutritional supplements; skin-based exposure to hormone-based hair treatments (such as for hair regrowth) or prescription medications (estrogen cream, testosterone gel) can all cause early puberty. Any hormone-based medications and nutritional supplements (especially those with anabolic steroids) should be kept away from children.
Past traumatic brain injury or infection.
McCune-Albright Syndrome--This is a rare and manageable condition; every case is unique and needs to be evaluated and treated by a doctor.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia--This is a manageable genetic condition. In the US, it is commonly tested for at birth.
Precocious Puberty Side Effects
Stress--Puberty is hard for everyone, but for younger kids who are still young emotionally, the changes that come with early puberty may seem frightening. Additionally, young children whose bodies appear to mature sooner than their peers may feel embarrassed by the changes in their bodies. They (especially girls) may be ostracized, teased or bullied for these differences. They may exhibit their stress emotionally or behaviorally, and may be at risk for depression and substance abuse problems.
Short stature--Because growth stops at the end of puberty, children who go through it early often end up being shorter adults (even given genetics). They are, however, completely healthy.