Do you think girls are developing faster these days?” The question is asked of a group of mothers watching their seven-year-old daughters playing a netball match at an upmarket school in northern Joburg. Of the 14 little ones on the court, at least four are showing signs of early breast-budding, a condition known medically as precocious puberty.

According to paediatric endocrinologist Dr David Segal, precocious puberty (which also includes the onset of menses and the growth of pubic and other body hair) occurs in girls before the age of eight and in boys before the age of nine.

Among the group of mothers is Grace Mthombi*, who was shocked when she noticed a brownish bloodstain on her daughter Nandi’s* panties one evening. “My first thought was that she’d been abused. I can’t begin to describe how terrible that was. I rushed her to casualty, but I don’t think even the doctor on duty that night knew what was going on.”

Nandi was subsequently referred to a specialist, who established that the little girl had experienced her first period. She’d just turned six. Nandi had begun to show signs of early breast-budding the year before, but Grace had put it down to puppy fat.

“It’s very hard to explain to Nandi what’s happening to her. I’ve cried a lot for my daughter. She’s still my baby – how could this be happening to her now?” says Grace.

“Even when it occurs at an age- appropriate time, puberty can be very challenging and confusing,” says Dr Mathias de Fleuriot, a psychiatrist specialising in lifestyle and nutrition. “A child of five or six is totally unprepared 
for either the psychological or physical changes that cause them to stand out and look different from their peers – something that can be deeply disturbing to a child. Early menstruation can be particularly unsettling and may cause little girls a lot of shame-based attitudes and behaviours that could scar them for the rest of their lives.”