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Why Are Girls Getting Their Periods So Early?

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It has as much to do with your divorce as with hormones in the food.

girls having periods at younger age

Dr. Wendy Walsh: No doubt about it, girls are getting their periods earlier and earlier -- and this has been going on for decades. I was just shy of my fifteenth birthday when I started menstruating back in the 1970s. My daughter was only ten when she got her first period this year. Since she wore pull-up diapers at night for many years until her bladder matured, I feel like I had only a brief reprieve between buying diapers and pads!

While the Internet is crawling with posters that quickly point to hormones used to increase meat, chicken, and dairy production as the basis for this phenomenon, there is a far more complicated answer -- part of which might make you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Let's start with eating in general. Kids eat too much of everything, not just hormone-laced food. Carrying excess body fat raises estrogen levels that can lead to early puberty. Keeping girls active with low body fat levels is one way to delay this process. I'll put money on the fact that a high-carb, high-fat, vegetarian diet that causes one to be overweight is probably more likely to produce early puberty than one that includes bovine estrogen in hamburgers.

Next, look no further than your neighborhood bus stop or the ads on TV for another puberty stimulus. We live in a highly sexualized culture. There are images everywhere of youthful, nubile models and actors in highly suggestive poses. When our brains take in this visual stimulation, our bodies have a reaction. If someone cuts a lemon across a room, you salivate. If someone assaults you with sexual images, you have a different kind of reaction. For children and tweens, the sexual images in our media function as a signal to the pituitary gland that they have left the nest and are out in the field ready to reproduce. So, their body steps up its natural process.

And speaking of sexual signals, some experts think early puberty has less to do with food hormones and more to do with pheromones and the changing family structure. For thousands of years, girls lived in nuclear families. The smell of males with shared biology -- fathers and brothers -- functioned to suppress ovulation. Yes, the scent of a smelly brother's B.O. was enough to inform a girl's biology that she was still in the nest and not ready to reproduce. But today families have changed. Young girls are exposed to the male pheromones of stepfathers and stepbrothers, and even mommy's boyfriends. Some experts in human biology believe this has changed the game for girls' bodies.

It's a complicated question with complicated answers. There are probably many more factors that contribute to the trend of early puberty. It's also natural. Each generation gets bigger, sooner. But when moms are helping their 9-year-olds insert tampons so they can be on the swim team, it does feel terribly premature.

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24 comments so far | Post a comment now
Mrs. Collins September 8, 2009, 5:43 AM


ame i. September 8, 2009, 7:05 AM

I was 10 (1978) when I started & had a couple of friends who did also. We were taller and more physically mature than our friends who didn’t start until years later.
My now 11 year old started at 10. She was 5’3” & already wearing a 34B, so I made sure to explain it to her well ahead of time. I think any girl, regardless of age, needs to be prepared once she has “graduated” from a training bra.

Sara September 8, 2009, 7:24 AM

Wow, my son is ten now and I can’t imagine dealing with periods at this age if he were a girl!! I guess this is what I get to look forward to as my daughter gets older. Yikes… I can’t imagine teaching a nine or ten year old how to put in a tampon!

Tricia September 8, 2009, 8:40 AM

This article really hits home for me because my daughter is not quite 9 and my doctor says it will only be a matter of time. It just makes me want to cry. We have no stepdads in the house, have always been careful about what she sees on tv, and she is at an ideal body weight (according to her doctor). But she is the tallest girl in her class. I’m so not ready for this!!!

Dana September 8, 2009, 9:03 AM

My daughter is 10 1/2 and Thankfully has not started yet! I am sooo not ready! She has just started growing up top - she says they are sore - I dont remember though. I personally was 16 when I started - I can only hope that she is that old!! (Of course I didnt need a bra until then either..haha)

deaddrift September 8, 2009, 10:15 AM

Need a source citation for the last two claims — that sexualized media and/or the presence of unrelated males cause earlier menarche.

As far as I know no observational basis exists for these assertions.

Rachelle September 8, 2009, 11:14 AM

” sexualized media and/or the presence of unrelated males cause earlier menarche.”

I have a hard time accepting this as well.

MamaLost September 8, 2009, 7:17 PM

I find it curious that some would find sexualized media questionable for inciting menses. The human body is an amazing and dynamic machine that adapts readily to its environment. Wouldn’t surprise me at all. Still, I would also like to see citations.

fikustree September 9, 2009, 10:38 AM

actually it is the estrogen in dairy products along with dietary fat intake which usually equals cheese, ice cream, fatty meat etc.

Amber September 9, 2009, 3:44 PM

I was 8 (two months short of turning 9, in 1992). It sucked because my best friend didn’t start until she was 14, so I had had mine practically forever by then. lol.

lori September 10, 2009, 3:25 PM

My daughter started at 12 1/2, and even that seemed early. And she is still at a place where she never ever wants to try tampons, so I figure that’s something that she and her friends can talk about and she can do her own “research”. But it does seem early.

Lisa September 16, 2009, 11:14 AM

The sexualized media is just the dessert so to speak…the culprits are the foods we eat, laced with hormones and other ingredients that passed from the animals, vegetables we eat to our bodies; evolution ( Darwin theory) works but not this fast! – a mere generation and we’re showing changes.

In the lute 70’s early 80’s women’s’ periods started around 14 to 16 years of age…now we have 9 and 10 year olds being the norm already.

Also check our body sizes (and body parts).. we have grown bigger ; I used to work at shoe store when I was out of school and remember women wearing size 6 to 8 tops; now I see plenty girls between 8-10 and even 11’s being common…
Also the rates of cancer have gone up in the past 25 years, some could argue that is because we have better screening techniques but even adjusted for that we just have “more ‘ illnesses nowadays than before.

They say that we are what “we eat”, how true….

Sherri September 19, 2009, 6:25 PM

You are so aware,Dr Walsh. Male pheromones have been shown in PET scans to light up the anterior hypothalamus in women and synchronize menstrual cycles as per studies performed at UPenn, etc. Nature is pushing us to reproduce at earlier ages - there’s a reason why and it’s very scary.

Alexis November 23, 2009, 10:25 PM

you’re being ethnocentric. 13 used to be the median age of menarche for WHITE girls. Girls in the middle east and in latin american countries have gotten periods at extremely young ages. Every one of my female relativesin the panamanian side of my family started their period at the age of 9…so did I. My white southern half started around 14. I think the shift in statistical ages is a sign of ethnographic changes. I was skinny and a figure skater at 9. I ate chicken and summer squash and HATED eating beef (the most disgusting tasting of meats except for cod). But my genetic encoding dictated that I watrt at the perfectly healthy age of 9.

ooo December 19, 2009, 3:07 PM

I think this is weird I mean it is so confusung for girls when they get there “cycle”. When I got mine I was at church camp I was 12 and I didnt want to tellanybody so I didnt not even when I got home I waslucky and had a older sis so i used her “supplies” and hid it but my room started stinking so my mom cleaned it and found out bout it

karen December 22, 2009, 3:53 PM

Soy products cause early puberty as well.

Dr. Mercola - “Soy formula is one of the worst foods that you could feed your child. Not only does it have profoundly adverse hormonal effects as discussed above, but it also has over 1000% more aluminum than conventional milk based formulas.

Newest Research On Why You Should Avoid Soy
by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD

Scientists have known for years that the isoflavones in soy products can depress thyroid function and cause goiters in otherwise healthy children and adults. More @

mia February 10, 2010, 8:17 AM

my daughter was 9 when she started her periods !!! she hadnt even leart about it in class yet !!! she didnt have a clue what was happening !!! thanx for some more advice!! ive got another 4 girls to go through it yet !!!!!

moonlit March 19, 2010, 11:43 AM

I was 12 when I first got my period and my daughter was 12 when she first got her’s. I do not feed and haven’t fed my daughter much of any dairy products and when I did I bought only organic. We also do not eat meat or any animals at all.

dustin June 27, 2010, 7:19 AM

I’d say you’re wrong only because I have a niece who started her period at a very young age recently. She is skinny as a rail, is homeschooled and see far less sexually stimulating things as I did, and has dads and brothers in the home with her. She does, however, eat hormone filled meat and dairy.

If I were you I would think about it some more before taking the pressure off of the hormones.

Amanda July 26, 2010, 8:50 AM

The author said, “It’s a complicated question with complicated answers,” so how can you just say “you’re wrong?”

Bravo to Dr. Walsh for not overly simplfying a difficult issue.

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