Published: BST, 31 October ated: BST, 1 November With her hair in bunches, Atlanta Carson looks like any other happy-go-lucky eight-year-old posing for her school picture. But behind the gap-toothed smile, there is much more on the mind of this year three pupil than play-dates and skipping games.
When this photograph was taken, Atlanta was already experiencing the first signs of becoming a woman, with hair starting to grow underneath her arms. At a time when most little girls are used to cuddling up with their mothers, Atlanta sought hugs for another reason: she was suffering pre-menstrual tension, headaches and cramps. A few months after this picture was taken, she had her first period.
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Studies across the world show the age that girls are physically maturing is falling all the time. And a startling number of children in Britain are beginning puberty at a shockingly early age.
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So what is causing this disturbing phenomenon? Doctors are unable to fully explain it - but one theory is that exposure to chemicals in the environment, processed foods and plastics that mimic the effects of hormones are triggering maturity sooner. Other studies have linked it to the fact that girls are generally gaining weight earlier in life thanks to better nutrition - while other studies have found a link to exposure to artificial light from TV and computer screens.
Every decade, according to German researchers, the average age for the onset of puberty falls by four to five months. So girls who appear to be growing up faster than ever actually are. In girls, breast development is generally the first sign of adolescence. The most comprehensive U. research suggests this starts aged seven for 10 per cent of white girls, and 23 per cent of black girls - 15 years ago the percentages were half that.
Studies show that black girls go into puberty so consistently earlier than white girls regardless of weight or size that researchers believe it is mainly down to genetic differences between the races - ie.
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the gene that triggers puberty is activated earlier in black children. A further study, published this month, shows precocious puberty is also affecting boys. It found it starts two years earlier than previously expected - at an average age of nine for black boys, and ten for white. Yet it seems parents - as well as primary schools - are finding it hard to adapt to the changes. The changes of puberty affect girls more deeply, because they experience a more visible transformation, which leaves them open to teasing from their peers.
For Emma, the metamorphosis of her daughter Atlanta from a cherubic little girl into an angst-ridden mini-teen seemed to happen almost overnight.
Other changes were not far behind.
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At ten, Atlanta was the first in her class to develop acne and now, at 12, wears a C-cup bra, which also makes her stand out from her peers. Even now, four years after she started menstruating, she becomes shy and withdrawn when her period arrives - with teachers remarking that she often avoids speaking up in class. Amy is devastated that as a result of her early physical development, her daughter has not been able to enjoy a carefree childhood.
I certainly could not make her feel ashamed of it by removing it. But at the same time, I have never been able to allow Marli to do the things other little girls her age have been able to do - like run naked in a paddling pool or at the seaside - for fear that others would notice and draw attention to it.
So can anything be done to slow the adolescence process if a child hits puberty at such a young age?
If there is not another underlying cause, like a tumour or thyroid problems, most girls can have injections that suppress the release of sex hormones, which spark the changes, until they are old enough to cope.
But if it is left too late, or girls are left to cope alone, the consequences can be life-long. The physical changes that accompany puberty such as tiredness, PMS, anemia and mood swings are rarely recognised or understood by schools when they start at such young ages. Studies in the U. have also found girls are more likely to be bullied and labelled as promiscuous by their peer group if they are early developers.
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They are also more likely to seek out older friends. That was certainly the case for Ellie Mather, 19, from Rainhill, Liverpool, who had her first period at the age of six.
It was while she was at home watching a cartoon with her older sister, Alex, that she looked down and saw blood seeping out on to her nightie. I ran to my mum crying.
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Throughout primary school she was relentlessly bullied as a result. An entry from her diary - complete with typical spelling mishaps - at the age of seven sums up her misery. The boys in my class went into my draw at brake and took my period pads out of it and started throwing them at me saying I wear nappies again. The boys would try to punch my breasts.
Looking back, Ellie believes early puberty encouraged her to behave as if she was much older than she was. You believe you have to act older than you are.
For Ellie, the effects of her precocious puberty are likely to be ongoing. At 4ft 11in, she is significantly shorter than she should be given the heights of the rest of her family - one of the side-effects of early puberty is that while growth spurts start sooner, they end more quickly, too.
She believes her history of heavy periods and hormonal fluctuations - which made her argumentative with teachers - meant her exam results were disappointing, too. After leaving school at 16, Ellie is now working as a chef, but also pinning her hopes on being a model. She now also lives with the fear that getting her periods so young will mean they will stop much sooner - and limit her ability to have a baby.
They are monitoring me.
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Ironically, when I have my period I live in fear it will be my last. Naomi decided to intervene because doctors told her that if Issy starts her period so young she might go into early menopause, because every woman only has a finite number of eggs.
Tabitha Randell, spokesman for the British Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes, says she is seeing more girls than ever developing breasts around the age of eight - with their periods starting on average around two years later. Emma Carson: 'But of course, at that age, she was nowhere near emotionally ready. Leptin seems to be instrumental in switching on puberty sooner.
The same boundaries must still apply.
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As a young adult who has lived through precocious puberty, Ellie says the support of a mother has never been more important. It was hard for both of us to accept. Some names in this article have been changed. Where has my little girl gone?
The little girls who reach puberty as young as six: Could junk food, plastic packaging and computer screens be to blame? By Tanith Carey for the Daily Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins Browse 4, little girls underware stock photos and images available or start a new search to explore more stock photos and images. child resting on bunk bed on board passenger ferry - little girls underware stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images. portrait of young girl looking at camera smiling - little girls underware stock pictures Hot Tiny Little Girls. Janis Schultz. 5 years ago | K views. Hot Tiny Little Girls. Browse more videos
How To Protect Your Daughter From Growing Up Too Soon by Tanith Carey Lion Books ?7. The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
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By Tanith Carey for the Daily Mail Published: BST, 31 October ated: BST, 1 November e-mail View comments. Growing up fast: Atlanta Carson.
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