Back in the 90’s it was normal for young girls to get their first period from around the age of 13. I am from that generation and I remember being told we were growing and developing too fast. Earlier generations apparently started showing their first signs of puberty from the age of 17. Today children as young as 5 or 6, barely off the bottle and diapers are apparently hitting puberty.
I recently watched 7-year-old girls playing netball at Northside Primary School. Of the 14 little ones on the court, at least 5 were showing signs of early breast budding. Lebo Pelontle was among the mums watching as her daughter Lerato ran up and down the court. “My little girl had a blood stain on her panties one evening, my first thought was that she’d been sexually abused. I took her straight to the doctor and after careful examination; I was then told that it was her first menses. She had started developing breasts but I often dismissed it as baby fat,” said Lebo. She said she found it very hard to explain to her daughter what it all meant at that tender age.
“She’s still my baby, how does this happen to her so early? How am I expected to deal with this tragedy?” she asked.
“Most of us in pediatric practice have a sense that children especially girls are developing much earlier but it’s getting worse these days, when we talk from age 5 we are speaking of babies,” said Pediatric Endocrinologist at Princess Marina Hospital Dr Badani Waleboa. She said these days puberty starts on average in girls between ages 8-13 and in boys between ages 9-14. “We diagnose early puberty when the normal process starts earlier and continues to progress through growth spurts and bone maturation. Girls who show significant signs of puberty and its progression before age 7 and boys before age 9 are considered to have a medical condition called precocious puberty,” she said. Waleboa said the more dependent families become on processed food rather than real farm produce the more precocious puberty and other conditions will prevail and it is a sad reality.
“Nowadays there is very little real nutritious food being sold in supermarkets. Much of what our children eat is conveyer belt food substances loaded with chemicals,” she said. Waleboa said she was particularly concerned because early onset of puberty is mostly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and menopausal problems later on in life.
Ontiretse Samazula is a Dietician at Princess Marina Hospital. She said food in plastic packaging can also contribute to the problem when heated especially in microwaves as chemicals are released into the food. “Never microwave or heat plastic including baby milk bottles,” she advised. Nevertheless Samzula warned that if a child presents early puberty symptoms it is extremely important for them to be medically examined. “People shouldn’t simply blame it on diet and the environment. It may be due to a serious medical condition like an adrenal or pituitary tumor, or an inborn metabolic error. I won’t rule out though that obesity and stress may also contribute,” she said.
“As a parent, it’s easy to worry about precocious puberty. There’s no doubt that you should take any signs seriously, therefore if your child shows signs of early puberty, they should be evaluated by a Pediatric Endocrinologist,” said Waleboa. She said kids and their parents should not view precocious puberty as a fearful medical diagnosis. “Symptoms that might seem like early puberty are often unrelated and resolve on their own, when a doctor and parents decide treatment is necessary, it is usually quite effective and most kids with signs of early puberty do fine medically, psychologically, and socially.
Although organic food is a far healthier option, the reality is that it is considerably more expensive, a deterrent for many cash strapped households. Yet Samazula’s message is clear, “when we return to eating nutrient dense food from farms, rather than factories, farmed by farmers who take care of the earth, we return to a connection with our food that’s joyful and creates good health.”