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Are girls growing up too fast?

May 1, 2012 10:36pm
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(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - Megan Sommer tries to give 1-year-old Elliot and 3-year-old Naomi the purest of everything.

Sitting on the porch of her Scituate, Mass. home, Sommer lamented, "You become a parent and start realizing that you have a responsibility that's so much greater than yourself."

Beyond buying organic and planting a vegetable garden, Sommer went a big step further and started raising chickens for farm fresh eggs. "So you know exactly where they're coming from," she said.

Sommer is one of a growing number of parents worried that environmental factors could be making girls mature too quickly. Her hope is by feeding her kids hormone-free food, they'll have a better chance of developing at a normal rate.

Dr. Diane Stafford understands her anxiety.

She said, "You want to protect them in any case and now you're protecting them when they're younger than you expected."

Stafford is an endocrinologist at Children's Hospital Boston and an expert on "early" or "precocious" puberty. According to a study in the Journal Pediatrics, American girls now begin puberty younger than any generation in history.

"When you think of puberty, I think of 12, 13. That's what I would like," says Sommer.

Typically, these days, girls hit puberty around age 10 or 11, but studies show more girls are beginning to grow breasts - the first sign of puberty - younger and younger. Ten percent of white girls are entering puberty by age 7 - double the amount who went through it 15 years ago; meanwhile, 15 percent of hispanics and 23 percent of African American girls are beginning puberty by first or second grade - and doctors don't know why.

"We don't know the underlying drivers of normal puberty," Stafford says, "Let alone the things that might be affecting it from an abnormal point of view."

Researchers have pinned the blame on everything from BPA to stress to childhood obesity. And have linked early puberty to increased odds of developing depression and eating disorders as well as drinking and drug abuse. Some research even shows the girls face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and breast and uterine cancers.

"It is almost certainly a conglomeration of a large number of things including genetics, including the environment," Stafford says.

In addition to any physical problems, there are the psycho-social issues that come with early puberty. If a girl begins to develop early, she may be seen as a sexual being much sooner than she normally would and that comes with its own host of problems.

"Concerns about sexual activity, concerns about abuse, about personal safety," said Stafford. "Breast development when everyone else is still flat chested, or having to wear a bra when nobody else is."

Doctors can treat precocious puberty, giving kids medicine to slow things down, but Stafford says she uses that as a last resort, preferring to watch and wait.

"If you medicalize something that is normal, you make it abnormal," she said. "And it doesn't necessarily do them any good either."

So what is a parent to do? Anything? Stafford, who has a daughter in elementary school, thinks childhood obesity is likely the biggest factor in early puberty so does what she can to keep her daughter eating healthy, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.

"There are so many potential influences, that to try and eliminate allĀ  of them is just not possible and just makes everybody anxious," she said.

Cold comfort to Megan Sommer who often feels helpless in the battle to let nature take its course - when nature seems to be off course.
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