What Pediatricians Want You to Know About Puberty
Puberty (or sexual maturation) for girls can start as early as age 11 to age 14, and boys can range from age 13 to 16, say experts. But, while puberty can be an exciting time, it can also be scary and awkward, spurring frustration and confusion in both kids and parents. Dr. Michael McKenna, general pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, offers reassuring answers to common questions.
- Why do some girls and boys start puberty earlier or later than others? “Genetics play a big role,” says Dr. McKenna. “When puberty begins is the same answer behind why someone’s eye color is green or blue, or why some people are taller than others. If a mother started her puberty at a younger age, most likely her daughter will, too. There’s nothing one can do to start puberty – it just naturally begins.”
- Should parents worry if their child is showing signs of early puberty? “We are seeing younger children, even four and five year olds, with a little bit of darker underarm hair or body odor, but this is different than actual puberty,” says Dr. McKenna. He continues, “These are premature signs of normal body development and are commonly an isolated growth in one area, versus several areas that develop at once during puberty.” But parents should not diagnose anything for themselves. “Talk to a pediatrician about any changes in a child’s development – especially puberty – because it’s a big milestone,” says Dr. McKenna.
- What are four reasons parents should be concerned their child may be starting puberty too soon? “If a young child is having more body odor, more underarm or pubic hair growth, breast development in the girl and a significant growth spurt, these are reasons to have a conversation with the pediatrician,” says Dr. McKenna. These could be signs of precocious puberty, or the early onset of puberty. AAP explains that precocious puberty occurs before the age of 8 in girls (signs include progressive breast development, growth acceleration and early menstruation) and before the age of 9 in boys (signs include penile and testicular enlargement, increased musculature and body hair, growth acceleration and deepening of the voice). “If precocious puberty is a possibility, it’s a good reason to talk to a pediatric endocrinologist,” says Dr. McKenna. “Children who begin puberty too soon risk a decreased final adult height and experience more mental and emotional scars from the bodily changes.”
- Do environmental factors play a role in the early onset of puberty? “The only environmental factor proven to start puberty sooner is increased body weight,” says Dr. McKenna. “For example, in boys, fat tissue in the body converts a testosterone precursor into testosterone. Testosterone is one of the hormones responsible for pubic hair growth and body odor development in puberty. Therefore, more fat can make more testosterone.”