Helping Girls Through Early Puberty
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
We're going to hear now from Dr. Leslie Walker, who specializes in adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. Welcome to the program.
LESLIE WALKER: Thank you.
BLOCK: And Dr. Walker, is this something that you see now in your practice, more and more young girls, 7 or 8 years old, who are developing breasts?
WALKER: Yes. Over the last - probably 10 years, I've noticed more and more parents coming in, concerned that their daughters were developing too early.
BLOCK: Developing too early. And does that also correlate with girls who are getting their periods younger and younger? Because the study that we're talking about, that was published today, did not look at menstrual age.
WALKER: Yeah, and I don't think that menstrual age has changed as significantly as early breast development has. In the older studies and even in practice, I don't see people as concerned about that, and it doesn't seem that it has changed dramatically. But the breast development, the things people see, definitely has.
BLOCK: If you have a young girl in your office who is developing breasts at such an early age, what do you tell her? What's that conversation like?
WALKER: Really trying to help her feel and understand that her body is okay, it's still normal, she's developing as a young girl should develop - because a lot of these girls are teased. They feel very self-conscious. Some of them, we see because they've already developed eating disorders because they don't want to see the changes that they're seeing.
BLOCK: So in other words, they would try to withhold food, thinking maybe they could forestall puberty that way?
BLOCK: You said they're developing as a young girl should develop, which really caught my ear because I'm listening to this, thinking, is that really what we're saying here, that a 7- or 8-year-old should be developing that way, at that early an age?
WALKER: Well, they have been. It's just, I think -the shift is that there are more of them; that people are studying and realizing some of the things that we used to say probably don't hold true.
But for that girl, the only thing she wants to know is, am I normal, is this okay? And once this has started, once the development has started, you're not going to give her drugs to change that, you know, unless you find that there's something else going on.
So the most important thing is for this girl to begin to feel good about her body, to feel good about the changes that are happening and know that, you know, they're okay - and she's not somehow unusual or weird.
BLOCK: Would the conversation with the girl's parents be different, do you think? And what would you be telling them about possible social considerations, things they need to be thinking about?
WALKER: If they haven't already talked with their daughter about advances from older men, advances from even teenage, young boys, that is something that they need to talk to their child about because the people around in the environment will react to what they see, and they don't necessarily think, oh, here is an 8-year-old girl. They say oh, look, there's a girl, you know, and I want to approach her. She has breasts; she's old enough.
They need to talk to them about the teasing at school. Sometimes, you even need to talk to the school about, you know, how to better manage the girls that they have that are developing early.
BLOCK: What would you tell the school?
WALKER: Well, in the past, I've actually gone to the school and talked to the kids about puberty - talked to them in second grade, to the level that they could understand. And after doing that, a lot of the teasing really subsided, when the boys realize that they have puberty to go through, and the girls, and this was the beginning of it.
And so I think bringing it out, helping kids understand that this is normal and not something to tease - and that's something that they're all going to go through eventually, as well - seemed to really help.
BLOCK: Dr. Walker, what advice do you give parents who might be trying to forestall the onset of puberty in their daughters? We hear a lot of talk about hormones in food, in drinking water. I mean, do you give advice if a parent says, look, should I be giving my daughter organic milk, hormone-free meat, no meat at all? What do you tell them?
WALKER: I tell them to get back to what is the most healthy - living a healthy lifestyle for their child, and making sure that there's a value on activity and moving, making sure there's value on eating as healthy as possible.
And in general, I would recommend, if they're able to have organic foods or foods that don't have hormones and chemicals in them, it's probably worth a try. We don't know for sure if that's a cause, but we don't know that it isn't, and it is a measure that a concerned parent can take to try to have their child develop at the time that they're supposed to.
BLOCK: Dr. Leslie Walker is chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. Dr. Walker, thanks very much.
WALKER: Thank you.
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