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“Childhood 5” Painting by Alemayehu Wariyo
“Childhood 5” Painting by Alemayehu Wariyo

The subject of early puberty in adopted children is a delicate one but it’s something we adoptive parents need to talk about. This phenomenon is, of course, more noticeable in girls. If you plan to adopt a girl older than 3 and coming from a place where she didn’t get enough nutrition as an infant, you must know she’ll have an increased risk of precocious puberty.
Early puberty in adopted children is usually related to a drastic change in diet. The children start to eat more calories once they arrive in their new home, gain weight fast which provokes the secretion of the hormone leptin which in turn provokes the secretion of the hormone GnRH responsible for the development of ovulation and the menstrual cycle in women and spermatogenesis in men.
This process is very fast and soon you’ll have a girl with her first menstrual period at only 6. 
The question is if we need to intervene in some way to avoid early puberty or if we should just let things be.
Many parents don’t want her girl to worry about periods when she’s only in Kindergarten or first grade due to the obvious social, emotional, and psychological consequences that can have on her.
It takes most adopted children several years to overcome adoption trauma and adjust to a new family and culture, if on top of that we add early puberty it can be very hard on them. Many children still wet their beds at night at 6, 7, or even 12 years old so they don’t need to take care of an extra issue.
From the medical point of view, early puberty is related to later health problems like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers. It can also lead to the child not reaching their full growth potential meaning the child will have a short height as an adult.
There are medications you can give your child to delay puberty once you notice changes in her body, but that is something you need to talk with your pediatrician and evaluate the risks. Every case is different and a lot depends on the emotional maturity of your child.
It is also common in international adoption that children ages are way off on paper, so you may think you’ve adopted a 3 or 4 years old when in fact she may be 6 or 7, so added to the change in diet, puberty is not so far away.
It’s also true that the age of puberty keeps decreasing more and more in developed countries. Not so long ago girls experienced menarche, or first menstrual period, at  14 years old, nowadays it’s common at 12, 11, or even 10. But still there is a big difference between 10 and 6.
menarche chart
I also need to mention a common stereotype regarding Africans.
When talking about the subject of sexual maturity, many people seem to think that black people are more “precocious", so they say that African girls and boys will mature earlier, which is not true. This concept has a lot to do with the racist stereotype that presumes that Africans are somehow closer to “nature”, which is the same as to say that are more close to animals than human beings.

Going back to the subject of this post, actually if you read some studies about menarche in girls, the average age for girls in Africa is 14.4, while in the US it is 12.5, independently from race. 
In reality early menarche is more related to food security than to race.
While precocious first menstrual cycles are usually a consequence of obesity in children, later ones are closely tied to malnutrition.
menarche relation to food insecurity
According to a study carried out in NW Ethiopia, the average age at menarche there was 15.8 ± 1 years, pretty late compare to the US or Europe.
Anyway, we all must be aware of this subject and how it can affect the lives of our children, children that are still struggling to adapt to a new life. If puberty can be a difficult time for a normal teenager, imagine the effects on a young child.

Links:

Precocious puberty in girls adopted from developing countries (.pdf)

Treatment of early puberty in adopted and non-adopted children: when, why and how (.pdf)

Precocious puberty and statural growth

alicia
AliciA

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