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Pangs of growing too soon

Dr. Ranjit Chakraborti

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“SHE’S still a child often tying her shoelaces in a knot. And now she has to cope with sanitary pads and keep track of dates. She is attaining adulthood, biologically, and yet she’s only ten,” says Anuradha Ghosh, a mother and housewife. Does this make you wonder what it’s all about? Biological clock is ticking real fast for Indian girls, with many of them attaining puberty much before their teens. On a hormonal fast-forward, the new Indian girl child is today found to attain puberty by the age of ten, some even start by 7 or 8. Sunidhi and Amit, a couple based in Kolkata rushed their 9 year-old daughter to a paediatrician when she started growing pubic hair. She was then taken to an endocrinologist who after a series of investigations confirmed that nothing was wrong. A few months later the child started developing breasts and had to wear appropriate inner wear.

Like many others of her generation, she’s attaining puberty faster. Even a decade ago, the age for menarche – first menstruation – was 12 to 14 years. Two decades back, doctors didn’t think even 16 years as too late. But not any more. An entire generation of pre-teen Indian girls is dealing with budding breasts, pubic hair and puberty that comes much too early when compared to erstwhile times. According to gynaecologist, Dr. Ranjit Chakraborti, Though not biologically disturbing, this poses a problem. The girls are becoming physically mature while being mentally a child. A child trapped in a woman’s body. As a result these girls are restricted by their parents as to what to wear and how to handle themselves. This makes them very conscious of their bodies. For parents it is becomes an uphill task while explaining the changes that are happening in the child’s bodies.

As told by Dr. Chakraborti, Better nutrition and obesity are behind early puberty. Better socio-economic patterns have girls attaining more body mass, which in turn triggers hormones essential for puberty. World over, the lowest puberty ages are in countries where diets are the heaviest. Another reason cited by doctors is sedentary lifestyle. Children, study, play computer games and watch TV. They indulge in very little outdoor games.

Even more troubling than the physical changes is the potential psychological effect of premature sexual development on children who should be reading fairy tales, not fending off wolves. The fear, among parents and professionals alike, is that young girls who look like teenagers will be under intense pressure to act like teenagers. Childhood is short enough as it is, with kids bombarded from every direction by sexually explicit movies, rock lyrics, music videos and racy fashions. If young girls’ bodies push them into adulthood before their hearts and minds are ready, what will be forever lost?

Marcia Herman-Giddens, now an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, published her famous paper in the journal Pediatrics. She launched a major study of 17,000 girls to get a statistical handle on the problem.

What she and her colleagues found was that the changes of puberty were coming in two stages, each with its own timetable. The average age of menarche, or first menstruation, had already fallen dramatically from 17 to about 13 between the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th—mostly owing to improvements in nutrition. But since the 1960s, average age of first menstruation has basically remained steady at 12.8 years.

The real issue is in proper handling of these little girls and not stunting their childhood. One often hears and reads about student counselors at schools, but maybe the need of the hour is counseling session for parents so that they are able to handle their pubescent daughter and themselves better.



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