A nurse gives Alyssa Pando her monthly shot, an injection her body relies on. Her tears of pain, quickly turn into laughter as she looks down at her Daffy Duck band-aid.
Alyssa is giggly and she’s shy like most four-year-olds, but beneath her childish grin, she’s dealing with some very grown-up issues- changing hormones and a changing body. These are concerns most young girls won’t have to deal with until they’re eight, 10 or even 12-years-old.
“It didn’t look normal,” says Darlene Escandon, Alyssa Pando’s mother. ” Right when she was born she had breast.”
Her body developed fast, and her breasts continued to grow. Her parents didn’t know what to do.
“I was worried that if she had breasts she’d be out of place. All of the kids,five orsix-years-old, would make fun of her and she’d feel weird,” says Escandon. “I was also concerned that she’d start her period too young.”
Alyssa has “Precocious Puberty,” which explains the growing number of young children beginning puberty early. They are getting breasts, beginning menstruation and growing sexual hair as young asthree or four-years-old, some even sooner.
“It keeps getting younger,” says Dr. John Mace, Pediatric Endocrinologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Mace says these days children are growing up too fast. Now, it’s considered “normal” for a child to began puberty atseven or eight-years-old. But Dr. Mace disagrees.
“What happens with the definition of normal is once enough kids start doing it, once it’s at aboutfive percent, they say it’s normal, but it’s not,” says Dr. Mace. “They are going from baby to adult without a childhood, which we need.”
The emotional effects of this condition are obvious. A young child isn’t ready to tackle adult changes at a time when they’re barely learning to read. It’s also straining on the body. Children with Precocious Puberty never reach their full height.
“He checks her growth to make sure she is in the right range,” says Escandon.
The signs are clear but, the cause or causes aren’t.
“I think it’s a whole host of our cultural changes that added to it,” says Dr. Mace.
Early puberty is more common in girls, but boys are not immune. There is research on dozens of potential explanations, but few confirmed facts.
“With little girls, we almost always find nothing. With boys, 40 percent of the time it’s a tumor,” says Dr. Mace.
A tumor is one definite cause. Researchers are also examining a possible gene mutation which may account for some cases. Still, Dr. Mace attributes a combination of environmental factors, where TV shows, movies, music and video games exploit sex and adult behavior.
“As children are exposed to more sexually explicit stuff, it pushes them to develop early,” says Dr. Mace.
Dr. Mace says the adult material triggers brain chemicals, releasing hormones throughout the body.
As society continues down this edgy path, cases of precocious puberty rise.
“I didn’t see much of it years ago,” says Dr. Mace.
If it’s not what children watch or listen to, it may be what they’re eating. Chicken, eggs, milk and beef often contain hormones. Chickens are often injected with estrogen, cows with growth hormone.
The hormones are used to speed up development in animals and it can do the same in people. As the side effects become more common, some manufacturers are coming out with more natural products, advertising as hormone free.
” If you ingest any meat with estrogen in it, it would cause boys and girls to get breasts if there is enough in it,” says Dr. Mace.
It’s not only what children eat, but also how much of it. Heavier children typically develop early, but for slim, small Alyssa, doctors can’t link her case to any of these social causes. This is because she was born with signs of the condition. So, she fits into the most common category, brain malfunction or defect. The malfunction causes the body to release estrogen at higher than normal levels, leading to early development. The good news is it can be treated.
Alyssa started treatments before she was two years old. Every 28 days she gets a shot, which suppresses the estrogen in her body. Dr. Mace tracks her growth and development every few months to make sure the shot is working. The shots made her breasts smaller within a couple months of treatment and there are no signs of unusual growth or development.
“She’s a normal kid. She has her DVDs and music. She likes Ariel. She’s normal,” says Escandon.
When Alyssa is about 10, she’ll go off the shots and her body should develop naturally. Until then, her mother holds her little girl tight, who thanks treatment, will stay little a while longer.
“When she goes to school next year no one will know that anything is wrong,” says Escandon.