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Like Girls, Boys Are Entering Puberty Earlier

Dec 24, 2012
Originally published on December 26, 2012 11:23 am

It's been known for a while that girls start puberty earlier than they did in the past, sometimes as young as 7 or 8. But it's been unclear whether boys also go through puberty earlier. Now, a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics helps answer that question.

Marcia Herman-Giddens is a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina. She did the original studies looking at early puberty in girls. Now, she has replicated those studies with more than 4,000 boys. And the findings are similar: Boys are entering puberty six months to two years earlier than they did in past studies.

There are racial differences. Caucasian boys tend to begin puberty, on average, around 10 years old while African-American boys tend to begin puberty at 9.

As with girls, researchers don't know why, but they have some ideas. Most have to do with the modern environment, starting with easy access to lots of food. "We have often talked about the problem of obesity and overweight, along with the easy availability of fast food, adding up to what some people call 'overnutrition,' or abundance of calories," says Herman-Giddens.

For girls, being overweight has been linked to early puberty. And that could also be the case for boys. Another possible trigger for girls: estrogenlike chemicals in the environment. That hasn't been proved — and it's most likely not a cause for boys, because estrogen isn't involved in the changes that come with puberty.

Whatever the reason, Herman-Giddens says the focus now should be on helping boys cope: "Just because the child's body is developing sexually earlier, that doesn't mean their cognition, judgment and other mental abilities that go along with becoming an adult are becoming earlier. They are not."

And, for parents, early puberty can be a trying time. Fred Goodall, the father of a 9-year-old boy, thought he wouldn't have to have the puberty "talk" for a few more years. Goodall wrote about his daughter going through puberty on his parenting blog, Mocha Dad.

Now, with his son, there are similar feelings; a bit of sadness, a sort of premature loss of innocence. "He still plays with Legos, and action figures; he reads comic books and wants me to give him piggy back rides; things like that; all these things are not things you associate with puberty. He's still a little boy in my eyes."

It's easier to tell when girls are going through puberty because of developing breasts and menstruation. In a way, a boy's developing puberty is nearly invisible, says Vermont pediatrician Richard Wasserman, who heads the research arm of the pediatrics academy.

Wasserman says the best way to deal with early puberty is to have a very specific and detailed discussion with your son about how his body is going to change. "He needs to be helped to understand that his body is changing and will continue to change as he progresses from being a boy to being a young man," says Wasserman.

This is where doctors and even books can help parents guide their child. Goodall just bought a book and hopes to have the talk during the holidays when his son is off school. "I want to give him time to have it sink in," he says.

The important thing, says Wasserman, is for your child to be comfortable in his new and developing body. "An earlier-maturing boy may ... be bigger and stronger," which could be a big plus in sports. But at the same time, "he may also feel awkward, clumsy and he may get teased."

And it's a good reason, says Wasserman, to take your child for yearly medical checkups, even if he is healthy. Some parents stop their routine doctor visits after their children have completed their immunizations. But a doctor can identify early puberty fairly easily with a physical exam.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been known for some time that girls are starting puberty earlier than in the past, sometimes as young as age 7 or 8. It has been unclear whether boys are also entering puberty earlier. It appears they are, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. NPR's Patti Neighmond has the report.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Fred Goodall is the father of a 9-year-old boy. He thought he wouldn't have to have the puberty talk for a few more years. But the fact of the matter is for African-American boys puberty can begin as early as nine. Goodall wrote about his daughter going through puberty on his parenting blog, Mocha Dad.

Now, with his son, there are similar feelings, a bit of sadness, a sort of premature loss of innocence.

FRED GOODALL: He still plays with Legos, he still plays with his action figures. He reads comic books. You know, he wants me to give him piggyback rides and things like that things like that and, you know, all these things aren't the things you associate with puberty.

NEIGHMOND: It's easier to tell when girls are going through puberty because of developing breasts and menstruation.

Marcia Herman-Giddens is a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina. She did the original studies looking at early puberty in girls. Now, she's replicated those studies with more than 4,000 boys. And the findings are similar: Boys are entering puberty six months to two years earlier than they used to.

MARCIA HERMAN-GIDDENS: The first signs of puberty in boys, for white boys we found they were 10.1 years of age, African-American boys were 9.1 years, and Hispanic boys were 10 years.

NEIGHMOND: As with girls, researchers don't know why. There are some ideas; most have to do with today's modern environment, starting with easy access to lots of food.

HERMAN-GIDDENS: We have often-talked about the problem now of overweight, fast food, you know, really what some people call over-nutrition, an abundance of calories, high-protein foods.

NEIGHMOND: For girls, being overweight has been linked to early puberty. And that could also be the case for boys. Another possible trigger for girls: estrogen-like chemicals in the environment. That hasn't been proved - and it's likely not a cause for boys because estrogen isn't involved in the changes that come with puberty.

Whatever the reason, Herman-Giddens says the focus now should be on helping boys cope.

HERMAN-GIDDENS: Just because the child's body is developing sexually earlier, that doesn't mean their cognition and their judgment and their other mental abilities that go along with becoming an adult are becoming earlier. They are not.

NEIGHMOND: Which is why pediatrician Richard Wasserman, who heads the research arm of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the best way to deal with early puberty is to have a very specific and detailed discussion with your son about how his body is going to change.

RICHARD WASSERMAN: And he needs to be helped to understand that his body is changing and is going to continue to change as he progresses from being a boy to being a young man.

NEIGHMOND: Doctors can help, so can books. Fred Goodall just bought one and hopes to have the talk when his son is off school for the holidays.

GOODALL: Because, you know, I want to give him some time to have it sink in. But I don't want it to be so fresh in his mind that he is, you know, going telling all his friends at school and, you know, causing some problems with them. So I want some time for it to marinate within his mind.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODALL: And for him to kind of think about it and have it not to be such a big deal when he returns to school.

NEIGHMOND: The important thing, says Dr. Wasserman, is being comfortable in your new and developing body.

WASSERMAN: An earlier-maturing boy, there'll be some good things about that for him in the short run. He'll get bigger. He'll be stronger. But he also may feel awkward. He may feel clumsy. And he may be teased. Certainly, these are things that parents need to be prepared for.

NEIGHMOND: Which is a good reason for yearly medical checkups, even if your child is healthy.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.