EXPERT ADVICE: Is my child going through early puberty?

In a condition known as precocious puberty, signs of puberty can be seen in girls younger than 8, and boys younger than 9.

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One of the big milestones in your child’s life would be him or her entering puberty

For girls, this would include the development of breasts and getting her first period, while boys will see their voices deepening and the development of facial hair.

But more parents in Singapore are now concerned about early puberty, or what is also known as precocious puberty.

This can happen when the body reaches a certain degree of maturity, and the pituitary gland is activated. Hormones will stimulate the sexual organs in girls and boys and lead to a growth spurt.

One of the most well-known cases of early puberty is the case of Lina Medina, a woman born in Peru in 1933, who gave birth to a baby when she was just 5 years old.

Unknown to her parents then, they brought her to the hospital because of her increasing abdominal size, only to learn that she was 7 months pregnant. She later gave birth to a boy by C-section, since her pelvis was too small to deliver the baby naturally. The baby’s father’s identity was is unknown.

As bizarre as it sounds, Medina had fully matured sexual organs because of early puberty, or precocious puberty. A medical report also state that she had her first period at 8 months of age, and prominent breast development by the age of 4.

Early puberty refers to the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics before the age of 8 years in girls and 9 years in boys.

Associate Professor Loke Kah Yin, Head & Senior Consultant of the Division of Paediatric Endocrinology at National University Hospital, sheds light on this condition.

Dr Loke, what exactly is early puberty and what causes it?

Puberty refers to the period in which children become sexually mature, and are capable of reproduction. Normal puberty is triggered by the secretion of hormones from the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain, and is noticed when secondary sexual characteristics appear. These include pubic hair and development of breasts in girls and deepening of the voice with enlargement of the male genitals in boys. 

The timing of normal puberty varies from 8 to 13 years in girls and 9 to 14 years in boys. Early puberty refers to the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics before the age of 8 years in girls and 9 years in boys. This is usually due to a problem with the regulation of these hormones resulting in premature secretion of pubertal hormones from the brain.

How common is this, especially in Singapore?

There are no reports of the incidence of early puberty in Singapore. However, the General Paediatric Endocrinology Clinic at the National University Hospital has seen an increasing number of children whose parents are concerned about early puberty, with an estimated frequency of 50 to 60 new cases per year.