News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Puberty Starting Earlier for Boys
American boys, like girls, may be entering puberty earlier than they did 30 to 40 years ago, a new study finds. Based on prior research, doctors have considered 11½ to be the average age of puberty for boys. In the new study, the average was about 10 for whites and Hispanics. The average was 9 for blacks, about 2 years earlier than prior studies showed. The new study was based on exams of more than 4,000 boys. Their ages ranged from 6 to 16. Doctors in 41 states recorded information during well-child visits. They took note of pubic hair, genital size and testicle size. Growth of testicles is considered the first sign of puberty for boys. Other research has shown that puberty in girls is starting sooner. This may lead to a higher risk of breast cancer. It's unclear why early puberty may be happening in boys, researchers said. It's also uncertain whether there's any health risk for them. The study was presented October 20 at a conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The journal Pediatrics published it online. The Associated Press and the New York Times wrote about it.
By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Puberty is that time in a child's life when the body goes through changes to become an adult. Many physical and emotional things take place at this time. They include:
- Mood changes
- Growth spurts
- Hormonal changes
Puberty begins around 8 to 14 years of age. Boys tend to go through puberty a little later than girls. We already know that girls are entering puberty at younger ages than before. Now we know the same about boys.
The new study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers found signs of puberty in American boys 6 months to 2 years earlier than they did in older studies. Those studies occurred 30 to 40 years ago. It is not clear why this is happening in boys.
More than 200 health care professionals in 41 states were involved in the study. They tracked signs of puberty among more than 4,000 boys, 6 to 16 years old. The researchers noted genital growth, pubic hair growth and the size of the testicles.
Each boy was listed in a stage of puberty based on his physical exam.
- Stage 1: Before puberty starts
- Stage 2: Beginning of puberty
- Stages 3 and 4: Developing into an adult
- Stage 5: Reaching adult maturity
African-American boys were more likely to start puberty earlier than white or Hispanic boys. Researchers found that puberty started in boys at different times based on their race and ethnicity. On average:
- White boys start at age 10 (a year and a half earlier than previous research)
- African-American boys start at age 9 (about 2 years earlier than previous research)
- Hispanic boys start at age 10 (similar to previous research)
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Everyone goes through puberty. It is a part of growing up. It seems these changes do not occur at the same time in all children. Each person goes through puberty on his or her own body's schedule.
Puberty can be a confusing time. Your child may be frightened by it. He may wonder if something is wrong with his body. He needs to know what to expect. He needs to know these changes are perfectly normal.
Children get their information about puberty from many different places. The sources include friends, the Internet, television and movies. These sources may not always be reliable. So it is very important for parents to discuss puberty with their children.
Do not wait for your children to come to you with questions about their changing bodies. That day may never come! Instead, sit them down and talk openly and honestly. Reassure them that the changes happening to them are normal.
Children may feel insecure about how they look. They may think they are the only ones going through these changes. Be sure to give your child many chances to ask questions. Always answer as honestly and thoroughly as you can.
Some things to remember when talking about puberty with your child include:
- Let your child know that you are always available to talk.
- If you are nervous or uncomfortable, practice what you want to say first.
- These topics are very sensitive. Remember that, as embarrassing or difficult as it may be for you, your child will probably feel even more uncomfortable.
- Do your research! Before answering your child's questions, make sure your own questions have been answered.
- For questions that you cannot answer, a talk with your pediatrician may be helpful.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
You can expect that researchers will continue to study why children are going through puberty earlier. Future studies will focus on whether early puberty is linked with:
- Exposure to chemicals
- Changes in diet
- Less physical activity
- Other modern lifestyle changes and exposures
Researchers also will look closely at how reaching maturity earlier may affect boys' feelings and behavior.