Girls entering puberty at much younger age

Torria Rollins is 10 years old, a little girl in every way. She loves to swim, dance, play computer games and ride her bike.

And yet there is undeniable evidence that her body is blossoming and has been at least since she was 7.

That was the year, her mother said, when she first noticed parts of her daughter's body looking more like hers than a little girl.

“I was shocked,” said Joy Rollins. “I had to sit down.”

Within weeks of the discovery, the single mother from Mableton would learn that Torria was experiencing precocious puberty, a condition that is becoming more common among younger girls. Medically, pediatricians consider puberty to be precocious or premature when a girl develops breasts or menstruates before age 8 and testicular enlargement is observed in a boy before age 9 -- parameters that are the subject of debate.

A new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found that girls are entering puberty as early as 7 years of age.

Funded by a seven-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, the study looked at 1,239 girls from Harlem and the Cincinnati and San Francisco areas over a six-year period.

The findings varied by race, said co-author Susan Pinney, an associate professor in the department of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. For instance, she said, researches found 10.4 percent of white girls, 23.4 percent of African-American girls, and 14.9 percent of Hispanic girls experienced early breast development; at 8 years, 18.3 percent of whites, 42.9 of blacks and 30.9 of Hispanics had some breast tissue.

The findings were no surprise to local physicians who say the numbers are in keeping with what they see in their practices.

Dr. Bolaji Odusina, who has a pediatric practice in Lawrenceville and Buford, said she sees as many as 20 girls a week who are showing signs of early puberty.

Doctors at the Pediatric Endocrine Associates in Sandy Springs say that out of about 3,000 active patients, 500 have been diagnosed as having precocious puberty.

Although not all girls will get that diagnosis, Odusina said parents shouldn’t ignore the signs.

“One of two things will happen,” she said. “You get peace of mind or you get quick help. It’s always better to be on the offensive with your child’s health than on the defensive.”

Although the causes of earlier onset puberty aren't entirely clear, Pinney said obesity and environmental factors appear to be the main contributors.

Dr. Melissa Carlucci with the endocrine associates, said that as the body mass index increases, the body produces increased levels of hormones that can accelerate growth and pubertal development.

She said the dangers of early on-set puberty are twofold: children are not psychologically prepared to deal with puberty at such a young age, especially menstruation for girls, and early puberty leads to premature cessation of growth and children end up short as adults.

In addition, Pinney said there are some immediate implications especially psycho-social.

“Young girls whose [bodies are] maturing have difficulty handling that,” she said. "Sometimes they are teased, may suffer low self-esteem, depression and early types of acting out behavior, all of which are reasons for concern."

Carlucci said parents should explain pubertal development to their children in an age-appropriate manner and answer questions as they are asked. They can also consult a physician for help, she said.

Odusina suggested parents find out what their children's body mass index is, teach them to cook healthful meals and discuss any concerns they might have with their pediatrician.

At the first sign of trouble, that's what Rollins did, but she said her doctor decided to take a wait-and-see approach.

That approach, Rollins said, seem to be working until about a month ago when her daughter started menstruating during a visit with her grandmother.

When Torria and her grandmother called to break the news, Rollins said she wasn't prepared. When she asked Torria if she understood what was happening, her daughter basically repeated what her mother had just told her.

"That was it," Rollins said. "No questions."

Just to be sure, Rollins said she will use a book from the American Girl series -- Is This Normal -- to help her explain to Torria what is happening to her. The book answers letters from real girls with concerns about their changing bodies and includes tips to help them talk with their parents about puberty and other touchy topics.

Although her body says otherwise, Rollins said, her daughter "is still just a little girl."