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What is puberty? Changes & Stages

Puberty is a time of physical and emotional changes; it transforms a child into a teenager and hence, is an extremely important stage of a girl’s life. It is true that puberty is inevitable. However, it is also a fact that every girl’s puberty experience is unique and therefore, should be handled accordingly. Puberty in girls is popularly believed to be a time when hormones that were in hibernation until now get awakened and signal your body to start the process of puberty. The hormones estrogen and progesterone are responsible for many of the changes experienced during puberty.

When does puberty occur?

The onset of puberty varies among individuals. Puberty usually occurs in girls between the ages of 10 and 14, while in boys it generally occurs later, between the ages of 12 and 16. In some African-American girls, puberty begins earlier, at about age 9, meaning that puberty occurs from ages 9 to 14.

Adolescent girls reach puberty today at earlier ages than were ever recorded previously. Nutritional and other environmental influences may be responsible for this change. For example, the average age of the onset of menstrual periods in girls was 15 in 1900. By the 1990s, this average had dropped to 12 and a half years of age.

Stages of puberty

Progesterone and oestrogen
Progesterone and oestrogen are important hormones in the development of adult reproductive function. Levels of both hormones increase significantly during puberty, resulting in many changes to the body.

Progesterone mainly affects the uterus (the womb) to prepare it for pregnancy during the second half of the menstrual cycle. It thickens the uterus lining in preparation for a fertilised egg to implant. If fertilisation does not occur, this lining breaks down and is discharged as a menstrual bleed.

The oestrogens stimulate most of the other changes associated with puberty.

One effect of oestrogen is to change the female sex organs from those of a child into those of an adult. It stimulates the growth of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and vagina. The external genitalia, including the labia minora and labia majora, also increase in size.

Oestrogens are also responsible for the development of the breasts. An extensive ductile system is developed and additional fat is deposited in the area. The ability to produce milk also comes about as a result of the influence of oestrogen.

The reabsorption of bone is inhibited by oestrogens. This results in bone growth, so that the female growth in height during puberty is rapid for several years. However, oestrogens also cause the bones to stop growing earlier than they do in males, leading to the growth of women ceasing several years earlier than the growth of men. Women are therefore generally shorter in stature.

Oestrogens increases the deposition of fatty tissue, so that women have a higher percentage of body fat than men. Fat is particularly deposited in the hips, thighs, buttocks and breasts. This produces the characteristic female “hourglass” figure. Skin is also thickened in females, although it remains thinner, softer and warmer than in males of the same age.

What other changes in the body occur during puberty in boys and girls?

What are the medical concerns associated with normal puberty?