Growth and puberty

Puberty or adolescence is the transition between childhood and adulthood. It usually occurs during the teenage years (13-19), although it can begin earlier and finish later, and involves a complex chain of events that affect growth and sexual development. During this time your child’s growth increases rapidly and they mature physically.

Puberty and growth disorders

Puberty plays an essential role in growth and understanding how this works will help you to understand your child’s growth patterns better.

What happens during puberty? 

The body begins to produce sex hormones which promote growth and also the development of what is known as secondary sexual characteristics - these are the physical changes that distinguish males from females but are not involved in reproduction, such as breasts and the Adam’s apple.

Once the development is complete, the production of sex hormones will reduce and stop growth and sexual development - signaling the end of puberty and beginning of adulthood.

Growth spurts during puberty

Sex hormones stimulate the pituitary gland to secrete more growth hormone. This stimulates the growth plates in the limbs so the bones get longer. Since there are higher amounts of growth hormone released during puberty, most children have a number of growth spurts during this time. 

This is important to note as your child may temporarily fall outside the “normal” range of growth, but may make this up in his or her next growth spurt.

Eventually, these sex hormones promote "maturation" of the bone, which means that the growth plates close and the bones stop growing. Therefore, children who reach puberty early stop growing earlier.

Physical changes during puberty 

In girls, breasts and pubic hair begin to develop around the same time - at about age 11. Periods (menstruation) usually begin about 2 to 2.5 years after breast development – at around 13 to 13.5 years. 

Puberty usually starts at about age 13 in boys. The penis gets bigger, the testes grow larger and they develop hair on their face and body.

Early or late puberty

Very early or very late puberty may have a negative impact on growth.

If a child starts puberty very early, their growth plates may close at a young age and the child will remain small. If a child starts puberty late, it is possible that there may be a hormonal problem and this may lead to reduced growth during puberty.

Why puberty is important in growth monitoring

Not every child begins puberty at the same age; in order to assess whether your child is growing well, it is important for your doctor to know if your child has reached puberty and at what stage they are at. 

Your doctor will determine the stage of puberty by looking at the secondary sexual characteristics. By examining this, your doctor will be able to determine how much more growth your child might expect. For instance if your daughter is below average height at age 14, has developed breasts but not started her periods, your doctor may feel that since she is in early stages of puberty she may still grow some more before puberty ends. However, if your son is below average height at age 14 but has developed secondary sexual characteristics already, your doctor may feel he may not grow much more.

Understanding the relationship between puberty and growth will be one of the things your doctor may look at to determine your child's development stage.

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