Hear from two Moms whose daughters had "precocious puberty."
Debbie Smith is a British mother whose daughter started puberty at age 3. Age three! We then talked to Joy, a Mom whose daughter also started puberty at age 3. Both of their daughters experienced what doctors call "precocious puberty," an uncommon condition that occurs when the physical changes of puberty begin before age 8 for girls and before age 9 for boys. "I was worried because I was seeing a 2-or 3-year-old girl having breasts, and then seeing pubic hair…I was like, 'What’s going on with my kid?'"Joy recalls. "I didn’t think it was normal, and I was scared." What Mom wouldn't be?Because these two Moms have such similar experiences, we introduced them so they could each share stories with another Mom who's been there. We sat down with each of them to discuss the unique challenges their daughters have faced and how they are coping with precocious puberty. We then spoke with Andrew B. Muir, MD, a specialist in pediatric endocrinology and one of the leading experts in the field, for his perspective.
Debbie: Hayley had body odor and pubic hair at 3. At six, she had breast development and started her period. During her monthly cycle, she would have migranes, a tummy ache, and a pink discharge. She experienced a huge weight gain. At age six, she was in size 10 women's clothes. She started shaving her legs and underarms at age eight. She has long periods that last as long as 55 days.
Joy: At age 3, Jiabre started getting breasts. The doctor told me it was just normal baby fat, and that I had nothing to worry about. At age 4, she developed pubic hair. Then, two months after her 6th birthday, she started her period. Now, at age 8, she’s wearing size 14 clothes. She’s not fat, but she doesn’t look 8. Although she’s in second grade, she’s about the same size of a fifth grader.
Debbie: I borrowed books from our local library to explain about your body changes. I did go to a child psychologist on my own, so I could explain to Hayley and tell her in the right way about the changes that were happening.
Joy: When she turned 6, I talked to her about her period. I taught her how to use maxi pads, and I explained that all girls go through this. I didn't want her to be scared when it happened.
Debbie: It was really upsetting to my husband and I as parents, because our little girl was never able to have a childhood. That has been taken away from her. She was bullied because she was the tallest in the school, and because of her weight. It was more of the boys than the girls who were unkind.
Joy: The second time she had her period, it was very heavy, like a grown woman's. I was scared. I didn’t want her to grow up fast, and I wanted her to enjoy her childhood. At age 6, she had mood swings and was emotional. It was something I had to get used to and learn to understand. It’s hard because she’s growing up so fast, but all I can do is be here for her, and let her know how things are.
I had to write notes to her teacher because she needed to go to the ladies room several times a day during class, and I didn’t want the teacher to think she was just playing around. The teacher didn’t believe her and wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom when she wanted to go.
Advice to other Moms
Joy: No question is a stupid question. Don’t be afraid to ask, and keep asking (doctors) if you’re not getting answers you want or think is right. Get a second opinion because I didn’t and now I realize I should have.
Debbie: Hayley was undiagnosed for too long. If I could go back a couple of years, I would say, "No, I am not happy with the care I'm getting. I want something done." From a medical point of view, if you're not happy with one medical consultant, go to another specialist, even if you have to travel hours to do so. If that's what you need to do to get the best care, do it. It's better than just waiting and waiting. Push until you get a diagnosis and the care your child is entitled to.
A word from the doctor
Andrew B. Muir, MD, is a pediatric endocrinology specialist, and one of the leading experts in the field of precocious puberty.
How common is this?
Many healthy children today are entering puberty at a younger age than we have traditionally seen. But in terms of numbers, the estimates on precocious puberty vary—it happens to anywhere from 1 in 500 to 1 in 5,000 children. Girls are 5-10 times more likely to have precocious puberty than are boys. Compared to girls, early puberty in boys is more often associated with a defined cause that requires treatment.
What causes it?
Most often, children who develop signs of puberty before the “normal” age have no definable cause. That doesn’t mean there is no cause. It just means we aren’t smart enough to find the cause. Probably less than 5% of these children receive hormone treatments to stop the development, but most do not need any treatment.
Occasionally, children will be unwittingly exposed to hormones in the environment that cause early puberty. An example is shampoos that contain placental extract. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2007 suggested tea tree oil and lavender in skin care products could cause breast development in boys. Transient ovarian cysts, low thyroid hormone levels, and a variety of different types of tumors are more common causes of precocious puberty.
What do parents need to know?
Girls with puberty starting before 8 years and boys with puberty before 9 years should be evaluated by a physician. Most of these children are normal, but a small number have abnormal causes of puberty that need treatment. If a child needs medical treatment for precocious puberty, it should be supervised by an endocrinologist, preferably one who specializes in pediatric care. Children with early puberty and their parents often face psychological challenges related to teasing and low self-esteem. Affected children look mature, but their brains have developed in an age-appropriate way. One must therefore be careful to keep expectations commensurate with their age, rather than their appearance.
For more information on precocious puberty, click here.