Thanks to lifestyle changes and consumption of fast-food, girls are reaching puberty even before they’re 10.
But doctors warn that early puberty, especially among girls as young as 6-8 years, could be symptomatic of a tumour.
CHENNAI: Until a few years ago, the expected age for a girl to attain puberty was between 12-16 years, but today girls as young as eight reach puberty. While initially doctors considered such cases unusual, these days they’re beginning to accept this as the norm, attributing the reasons to lifestyle and environmental changes. Yet there are some doctors who urge parents to get their young daughters tested because signs of puberty at a very early age could be symptom for a tumour.
“It might not be the case but it’s better to just get it tested,” said Dr Gowri Meena, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Apollo Specialty Hospital, Chennai. But not many parents opt for testing. They’re unaware about the risk factors, and attribute signs of early puberty to lifestyle changes. “Children with early puberty must be immediately sent for an MRI scan to check for brain tumour, since the hormones are produced by the pituitary gland,” points out Dr Cherie Mathew John, a Paediatric Endocrinologist, who runs his own paediatric clinic in the city.
“Since most parents are not aware of this, they end up seeking medical help when it’s too late.” For those children below six, who start menstruating or showing signs of precocious puberty, a doctor’s visit is a must, he adds. Why? Because if the risk of tumour is obviated, the next worry is stunted growth. Since the body has reached puberty early, the child has a much shorter time to grow than other children. “The ends of our bones on the spinal cord, upper arm, thigh and leg grow to increase our size but when puberty hits, the growth plates at the end of the bones gets stunted and the spinal cord stops growing.
So the child may grow faster than those of her age and will look taller than the others but the growth usually stops within two years; so they remain short,” he explains. In such cases, the child has the option of taking an injection — gonadotropin-releasing hormone, but strictly after consultation with an endocrinologist. “This injection prevents the pituitary gland from producing hormones, and this ensures proper growth of a child,” shares Dr Rajshri J Shankar, consultant gynaecologist. What about side effects? “No, it’s quite safe. The only adverse side-effect could be weight gain but it regulates the growth in the body and prevents stunted growth and avoids any other unnecessary problems in the future too.
However, there is very little awareness about this,” rues Dr Cherie. Dr Gowri says that early periods could also lead to childhood obesity, which always increases risk of diseases like high cholesterol and hormone-related diseases like PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and thyroid too, “Having PCOS could result in growth of facial hair and, fluctuations in thyroid could result in unhealthy weight gain or loss,” she says. Due to these problems, it can affect a child psychologically. “Even older girls take time to get adjusted to menstruation. So a child as young as 7-8 will not know how to handle sanitation.
This one time, a worried mother brought her child because she didn’t expect the child to hit puberty so early and was tensed about how her daughter would be able to manage the monthly hassle,” she says. “Also, when parents realise that other children their age are not undergoing the same thing as they are, they become uncomfortable and self conscious.” Apart from the period itself, the body also undergoes changes such as weight gain, breast development or arm-pit hair growth; this makes the child very conscious of her appearance. “Body shaming is common these days.
Their self-esteem takes a hit due to societal judgements, and it leads to depression. At such a young age, it becomes too much for the child to handle,” adds Dr Gowri. Another important aspect of early puberty is sexual awareness. “Due to hormonal changes, the child may crave intimate relationships and also engage in sexual acts, which could lead to unwanted pregnancies and increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. And since there’s no regulation on the internet, online porn and other materials give them wrong information,” explains Dr Gowri Meena.
Many worried parents consult him and he tells them: “Just as the child needs to be reassured, the parents need reassurance too. I usually tell the child that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her, what’s happening is normal, and that in a year or two, all her other friends and classmates will be go through the same thing. Parents also have to do their share of reassurance the same way.” Apart from environmental factors, doctors say that the problem has only one origin — fast food. “Children are eating unhealthy food — only calories, no nutrition. If the child puts on weight, the body begins to feel like it is ready for puberty, so overfeeding is a strict no-no,” explains Dr Gowri.