What is Puberty?

Puberty is defined as the time when a child’s body starts to change and develop as they go from childhood to adulthood. As well as significant physical changes, it is also a time of extensive emotional development, which brings with it fluctuating mood swings and, as such, it can be a challenging period for the whole family.

The start of puberty marks the onset of sexual development, and, during the years that follow, a myriad of hormonal changes will culminate in reproductive maturation. Puberty is a complex process. It involves genetics, as well as nutritional, socio-economic and environmental factors for both initiation and progression.

The average age at which puberty starts is 11 for females and 12 for boys, although anything from 8 to 14 is considered to be within the normal range. In many countries the age at which puberty starts is falling, possibly due to improved nutrition and higher BMIs, as well as the impact of endocrine disruptors. To read more about early puberty click here.

Physical changes

During puberty both boys and girls will experience a pronounced growth spurt, so that by the end, their skeletal height will have reached full maturity. Puberty is the second most rapid period of growth; the only time an individual grows faster is during the neonatal period. Females will, on average grow 5 – 7.5 cm per year during their pubertal years, generally increasing their height by 25 cm. males will grow 7 – 8 cm per year, gaining an average 28 cm by the time they reach the end of puberty.

Aside from height, the physical changes vary according to gender.

Females. The first signs of puberty in females are usually breast development and the growth of underarm and pubic hair. Approximately two years after the onset of puberty a female will reach menarche, meaning that she has her first menstrual period. Initially periods may be sporadic and irregular as it can take several years for a regular ovulatory cycle to become established. Females going through puberty will also notice a change in their bodily fat distribution, with the waist becoming narrower and the hips rounder.

Males. Physical pubertal changes in males include the growth of the penis, scrotum and testicles. Pubic hair starts to grow around the base of the penis. A male going through puberty will notice that his voice ‘breaks’, going through phases of being high pitched, as it ultimately becomes deeper in tone. Males may also start to experience wet dreams, caused by an involuntary ejaculation of semen as they sleep. In the early stages of puberty, a male may even experience transient breast enlargement due to increased oestrogen levels. This is temporary and soon increased testosterone levels will override this effect.

Emotional impact

With so many physical changes it is easy to see why those going through puberty struggle with their emotions. They are having to adjust, over a very narrow time frame, to fairly extensive changes in their appearance, at a time when many have developed increased self-awareness and insecurities about the way they look.

The relationship a youngster has with their parents is also likely to be changing at this time, as he or she becomes more reliant on the social networks they have outside of their immediate family.

As with all stages, puberty passes, but getting through it unscathed, as a parent, may require a certain degree of patience, understanding and compassion.

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Snyder, Cynthia K. “Puberty: An Overview for Pediatric Nurses.” Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016, pp. 757–759., doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2016.08.004.

“Stages of Puberty: What Happens to Boys and Girls .” NHS Choices, NHS, https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/stages-of-puberty-what-happens-to-boys-and-girls/.

“Surviving Adolescence: for Parents and Carers.” RC PSYCH ROYAL COLLEGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS, https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/parents-and-young-people/information-for-parents-and-carers/surviving-adolescence-for-parents-and-carers.


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