My daughter is only nine but seems to be showing signs of puberty – is this possible?
My eldest daughter has just turned nine. She has a few hairs in each armpit. I was a little horrified when she showed me, as she seems far too young to be showing signs of puberty. I didn’t tell her that, just that it was all perfectly normal. I have read that girls seem to be developing earlier. She also gets spots. I was a fairly late developer and didn’t have my first period until I was 14 or 15.
She has always wanted to be older than her years – she wears makeup and high heels (occasionally and within reason, but would wear them every day if allowed), she has a phone and is interested in boys at school. She seems so eager to be a teenager. However, when she found the hairs, I think she was a little shocked, although she knows all about puberty. My worry is that, somehow, her environment has caused her to develop early, whereas my childhood was very different.
Do you think the hair growth is the first sign of puberty and, if so, what happens next? Mrs A, via email
Precocious puberty in girls is classed as breast development and menarche (first menstrual bleeding) before the age of eight. You are right that children are starting puberty earlier – 100 years ago, the average age of menarche was 16-17, today a half of girls start their periods by the age of 12½.
What causes precocious puberty (not what is happening to your daughter, by the way, as she hasn’t had menarche/breast development yet and she is already nine) varies, but it might be that stresses and strains in early childhood are implicated and, certainly, rapid growth during the first few years of life is a contributing factor. In those circumstances, nature decides that it is evolutionarily advantageous to reproduce asap.
I consulted Peter Hindmarsh, professor of paediatric endocrinology at University College London. He said that, strictly speaking, the appearance of underarm and ancillary hair in girls is not the start of puberty, because this hair growth is not stimulated by a hormone from the ovaries, but by androstenedione, a male-like hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Breast development, triggered by oestradiol (which comes from the family of oestrogen) from the ovaries, is usually the first sign of puberty in girls.
That said, it does sound as if your daughter is on the flight path to puberty, but don’t panic. No one knows when her first period will be. It could be a few years away, particularly as she shows no signs of breast development.
Puberty (the ability to reproduce) is regulated by a system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. At around the age of eight, this system starts to produce something called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), initially at night (usually between 10pm and 4am) and in little bursts every 90 minutes or so, to kick-start puberty.
Once puberty is established, these hormones are released day and night. GnRH stimulates the production of luteinising hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone. These come from the pituitary gland. Once the body thinks a pregnancy can be sustained, egg production starts and a girl will have her first period. As you probably remember, however, periods can take a while to settle down.
Your daughter will also have a growth spurt as puberty starts (typically around 11 in girls, a couple of years later in boys) – she will grow a whopping 25cm (approximately) in height. Most of this will coincide with breast development and be before her first period. (After that, she will probably grow only about another 5cm.) So that’s another sign to look out for.
I am glad that you have stayed calm about the changes in her body. She will need reassurance, however grown up she seems, or wants to be. And while you may have talked about puberty, it will all have seemed rather abstract and not madly relevant. Once it actually starts to happen, she may have all sorts of questions; let her know she can ask you anything (if that is the case). A book I like is What’s Happening to Me? by Susan Meredith where she can find accurate information, and not rely on “playground facts”.
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