How to Help Girls Cope With Early Puberty—or Avoid It

Being overweight and exposure to environmental chemicals can increase the risk.

By + More

Early puberty is no fun. Girls who mature earlier than their peers are more likely to be teased and have behavior problems. They may struggle to deal with sexual advances that come before they are emotionally mature enough to cope. Early puberty in girls also can increase the risk of early sexual activity, depression, and eating disorders. So the news that girls are maturing earlier than ever before is sobering: Ten percent of 7-year-old white girls are already developing breasts, as are 23 percent of black girls, and 15 percent of Hispanic girls, according to a new study from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, which appears in the September issue of Pediatrics. Those numbers are greater than they were 10 to 30 years ago, and appear to still be on the rise for white girls.

Parents can help reduce that risk by helping their daughters maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight—or a high body mass index (BMI)—is considered the biggest risk factor for early puberty, probably because body fat produces hormones. The American Academy of Pediatrics asks doctors to screen children using BMI, a measurement of weight to height, starting at age 2; a healthy BMI ranges from the 5th to 84th percentile. Put your child's height and weight into this BMI calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another possible cause of early puberty is endocrine disruptors in plastics, the lining of metal cans, cosmetics, and household chemicals. They include phthalates, chemicals that are used to make plastics soft, and bisphenol A (BPA), which is used in making plastic bottles, and influences the action of the hormone estrogen in the body. Both chemicals are hard to avoid; a recent study found BPA on store receipts, for example. But here are a few ways to cut back on your family's exposure:

  • Buy frozen or fresh foods instead of canned goods.
  • Avoid polycarbonate plastic bottles with the PC number 7 recycling code; they contain BPA.
  • Use powdered infant formula instead of premixed; the Environmental Working Group reports that the plastic bottles used in liquid baby formula may leach excessive amounts of BPA.
  • Check labels on cosmetics and shampoos for phthalates. The Environmental Working Group's Cosmetic Safety Database is a good way to look up the chemical content of your favorite products, and find safer ones.
  • The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, introduced in Congress in July, would require manufacturers to phase out some of the more troubling chemicals in foods and household products, and require full disclosure of chemicals on product labels. The labeling process alone would be a big help for parents wanting to reduce needless chemical exposure for all children.