Female Development

Article Author:
Kailey Remien

Article Editor:
Leela Sharath Pillarisetty

Editors In Chief:
David Wood
Andrew Wilt
Hajira Basit

Managing Editors:
Avais Raja
Orawan Chaigasame
Khalid Alsayouri
Kyle Blair
Radia Jamil
Erin Hughes
Patrick Le
Anoosh Zafar Gondal
Saad Nazir
William Gossman
Hassam Zulfiqar
Navid Mahabadi
Hussain Sajjad
Steve Bhimji
Muhammad Hashmi
John Shell
Matthew Varacallo
Heba Mahdy
Ahmad Malik
Sarosh Vaqar
Mark Pellegrini
James Hughes
Beenish Sohail
Hajira Basit
Phillip Hynes
Sandeep Sekhon

3/14/2019 3:51:29 PM


The sex of a fetus is due to the sperm provided by the biological father. Each oocyte, from the biological mother, has an X chromosome and does not influence the sex of the fetus. If the father provides another X chromosome the fetus will be female. There is an incredible amount of development that occurs in the uterus, but female development does not stop after birth.

Puberty begins in females from the ages of 8 to 10 years old. It is characterized by pubic hair development, breast enlargement, and menarche, which starts between the ages of 8 to 14, and 7 to 13 in African Americans.[1] The uterus begins to grow before the initiation of puberty.[2] Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) is active during the neonatal period and then becomes dormant until puberty. GnRH release is necessarily in a pulsatile manner for the initiation of puberty — the pulsation of GnRH partners with an increase in estradiol. Leptin levels also increase before puberty and are essential for maintaining the cyclic reproductive function.

After menarche, gonadotrophs can react to the effect of estradiol on LH and FSH.  Follicles are present in 86% of prepubescent girls and 99% of girls by menarche.[2] However, ovulation does not occur until the girl has had an average of 6 regular menstrual cycles and monthly ovulation does not become regular for several years. Females ovulate for an average of 30 years. Ages 11 to 16 is when patients reach sexual maturity and full fertility.[2] 

Thelarche, also known as breast development, is typically the first sign of female puberty. One breast may begin growing before the other, and this is considered normal. Thelarche begins 6 to 18 months before pubarche (the onset of pubic hair growth) and an average of 2 years before menarche (the first menstrual cycle). Estrogen is the primary stimulant for all of these changes, and it also causes the labia minora to grow, vaginal mucosa to mature, and alters fat distribution. Female development has an incredible phenotypic variation, and the average age of menarche is 12 years old.[1]

As females develop, a universal means to classify where they are in puberty is known as Tanner stages. Stage one is prepubertal females. They will have no breast tissue or pubic hair. Stage two is when the breast bud begins to protrude with enlargement of the areola and the sparse presence of pubic hair.[2] Female typically experience their ‘growth spurt’ during Tanner stage two.[1]  Continued breast and areola enlargement without distinct separation of the contour and darkening pubic hair along the mons pubis is known as Tanner stage three. Stage four is classified when a secondary mound above the breast forms and the pubic hair thickens but is not on the thigh. Menarche occurs in stage three or four. Stage five is the adult female body. It is when the nipple projects out of the areola and the pubic hairs reach the medial thigh.[3]

Issues of Concern

Sexual development can be concerning for those who do not develop correctly or feel different about their external genitalia. Intersex people are people born with chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical atypical sex. These patients can have “ambiguous genitalia,” and many are subject to genital surgery shortly after birth. This alteration can later lead to malformation, pain, sexual dysfunction, scarring, urination difficulties, and depression. The intersex community rejects the original terminology of ‘hermaphrodite’ which originated from Greek mythology. They believe it to have a crude meaning.[4] This patient population has an increased number of comorbidities. Intersexuality is most often present at birth but may become apparent during puberty. The current medical approach to these patients has drastically changed in recent years. Medical providers must not rush sexual assignment, and there continues to be a lack of evidence of long-term outcomes after assignment surgeries.[4]

Transgender people are those of matching, unambiguous chromosomal, gonadal and anatomic sex which is incongruent with their gender identity. Many patients possess a strong desire to live according to the identified gender will undergo gender reassignment surgery, medical treatment, and hormone therapy to change their appearance. Trans women are those who have experienced a male-to-female transition surgery, and trans men are patients who have undergone a female-to-male transition surgery.[4] Less than one percent of the population demonstrates a gender variant identity, but this population has an increase in mental illness, suicide, a decreased quality of life, and require excellent medical attention. Children who show signs of gender dysphoria may take prescription ‘puberty blockers.’ This medication is a gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist and is used to give the patient more time before the onset of puberty. Secondary sexual characteristics can be distressing but delaying puberty poses a threat to fertility.[4] Gender reassignment surgery will make the individual sterile, and health care providers should make sure to educate the patient on this subject and that they understand all the benefits and detriments.[4]

Clinical Significance

Infertility – One study estimates that one in every seven couples in the western world has infertility. Infertility occurs for many reasons or may occur spontaneously. During female development, if any step in the process does not form currently this can result in the inability to become pregnant or adequately carry a fetus.[5]                       

Mullerian Duct Abnormalities (MDA) - These congenital malformations occur when the Mullerian duct does not fuse, canalize, or reabsorb correctly. A septate uterus is the most common MDA, followed by the bicornate uterus and arcuate uterus.[6] A septate uterus has tissue descending from the superior musculature of the uterus into the endometrial cavity. A bicornate uterus is considered ‘heart-shaped’ with an indent to the superior aspect, and arcuate is a thickening of the superior musculature flattening and widening the uterus. A didelphys uterus is when the patient has a “double uterus.” This malformation is the most uncommon. Uterine abnormalities cause a decreased rate of conception and can pose complications during pregnancy.[6] Mullerian agenesis is a condition in which the uterus never forms. These patients will have a shortened vaginal cavity, and no cervix and are unable to conceive but are likely to have their viable eggs.

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) – CAH is an autosomal recessive disorder due to enzyme deficiencies that impair the production of aldosterone, cortisol, and androgens by the adrenal glands. A 21 hydroxylase deficiency is the most common cause of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. CAH can present as the neonatal form with adrenal insufficiency salt wasting and ambiguous genitalia. It can also present as late-onset non-classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia (NCCAH), which is a less severe form in which there is 20 to 50 percent 21-hydroxylase enzyme activity compared to the classic form. Patients with non-classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia do not present with ambiguous genitalia and salt wasting. NCCAH which will result in adolescent female not developing secondary sex characteristics, with hypertension and hypokalemia. These symptoms are due to an increase in deoxycorticosterone (DOC) causing hypertension and hypokalemia and an absence of androgen production. Genetic analysis will reveal that these patients are genetically male (46, XY) but are unable to develop external genitalia due to the lack of testosterone and will appear female.[7] 3B-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 deficiency in females will result in precocious pubarche, hirsutism, and amenorrhea. These patients are likely to have ambiguous genitalia at birth due to increased androgens. They will also suffer from decreased aldosterone and cortisol production.[7] 

Ovarian cyst – Ovarian cysts can occur anytime throughout female development and aging. They are common, typically benign and asymptomatic. However, few ovarian cysts hold the ability to produce estrogen. If a pediatric patient has an estrogen-producing cyst, they will enter puberty early. Puberty beginning before eight years of age in females is known as precocious puberty. Most of these patients are observed with follow up every 4 to 6 weeks, and if necessary, a surgeon will excise the cyst. Most symptoms resolve over time, and these patients will not need surgery.[8] 

Female athlete triad – Menstruation is part of normal female development. Amenorrhea is the absence of monthly menses and has many causes. The female athlete triad is one cause and if not changed will have profound effects on the patient’s health and fertility. This triad encompasses energy deficiency, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone density. Due to vigorous workouts, strict diets or eating disorders these patients may be severely underweight. They are expending much more energy than they are consuming. This decrease in body mass index and energy results in amenorrhea and delayed puberty.[9] 

Precocious puberty – As defined above, precocious puberty is the early onset of puberty. It separates into central and peripheral precocious puberty. Central causes of precocious puberty are due to dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. The reason in females is mostly unknown but may be from cerebral malformations or tumors. GnRH agonists are the therapeutic choice to treat this condition.[10] Peripheral precocious puberty is independent of the HPG axis and can be due to ovarian cysts (explained above), McCune Albright syndrome (described below), congenital adrenal hyperplasia (defined above), and exogenous hormone exposure. If a female is receiving exogenous androgens or estrogen, they will begin puberty earlier than anticipated. Treatment for peripheral precocious puberty depends on the etiology.[11]

McCune Albright syndrome (MAS) – MAS is a disease caused by a spontaneous, activating mutation of GNAS1 and the LH receptor gene.[11] This disease is rare and involves the skin, bones, and endocrine system. It presents in females with early puberty, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia of the bone, and café au lait spots. Precocious puberty or fibrous dysplasia are the two main reasons these patients come to medical attention. Treatment should target individual disease manifestations.[12] 

Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) – AIS is due to the dysfunction of the androgen receptors throughout the body. It is a common disorder of sexual development. The phenotype of each patient is dependent on the degree of dysfunction.[13] Complete AIS patients will be externally female and will internally have gonads in the abdomen or unusual locations. They will also have a short vaginal canal without a uterus. Treatment is consistent with a gonadectomy followed by hormone replacement therapy. Removal of the gonads is vital due to increased risk of germ cell tumors from the hormone therapy.[13]

Turner syndrome (TS) – This syndrome originates from the total or partial loss of the X-chromosome. Most cases have genetic mosaicism. These patients suffer from short stature, webbed neck, unusual physical appearance, intellectual disability, and ovarian failure. Height is the number one complaint when these patients present for care. Short stature in TS can be treated with growth hormone alone or in conjunction with oxandrolone. TS patients never undergo normal female pubertal development due to their gonadal failure, but hormone replacement can help. They can carry children but will need oocyte donation to become pregnant. One study found that most patients finish middle or high school.[14]

Interested in Participating?

We are looking for contributors to author, edit, and peer review our vast library of review articles and multiple choice questions. In as little as 2-3 hours you can make a significant contribution to your specialty. In return for a small amount of your time, you will receive free access to all content and you will be published as an author or editor in eBooks, apps, online CME/CE activities, and an online Learning Management System for students, teachers, and program directors that allows access to review materials in over 500 specialties.

Improve Content - Become an Author or Editor

This is an academic project designed to provide inexpensive peer-reviewed Apps, eBooks, and very soon an online CME/CE system to help students identify weaknesses and improve knowledge. We would like you to consider being an author or editor. Please click here to learn more. Thank you for you for your interest, the StatPearls Publishing Editorial Team.

Female Development - Questions

Take a quiz of the questions on this article.

Take Quiz
Which of the following is a correct statement about female development?

Click Your Answer Below

Would you like to access teaching points and more information on this topic?

Improve Content - Become an Author or Editor and get free access to the entire database, free eBooks, as well as free CME/CE as it becomes available. If interested, please click on "Sign Up" to register.

Purchase- Want immediate access to questions, answers, and teaching points? They can be purchased above at Apps and eBooks.

Sign Up
A 15-year-old female presents to the clinic with her mother due to a lack of secondary sex characteristics. She has no breast buds or pubic hair and has not started menses. Upon the speculum exam, the vaginal vault is observed to be shallow, and she does not have a cervix. What is her likely karyotype?

Click Your Answer Below

Would you like to access teaching points and more information on this topic?

Improve Content - Become an Author or Editor and get free access to the entire database, free eBooks, as well as free CME/CE as it becomes available. If interested, please click on "Sign Up" to register.

Purchase- Want immediate access to questions, answers, and teaching points? They can be purchased above at Apps and eBooks.

Sign Up
A mother brings her 6-year-old daughter to the outpatient department, complaining that her daughter has begun to grow 'breasts.' On physical exam, the patient has distinct breast buds. Her social and family history is unremarkable. An abdominal ultrasound shows the patient has a hormonally active right ovarian cyst. Which of the following is the next best step in the management of this patient?

Click Your Answer Below

Would you like to access teaching points and more information on this topic?

Improve Content - Become an Author or Editor and get free access to the entire database, free eBooks, as well as free CME/CE as it becomes available. If interested, please click on "Sign Up" to register.

Purchase- Want immediate access to questions, answers, and teaching points? They can be purchased above at Apps and eBooks.

Sign Up
A 17-year-old female presents to the clinic for amenorrhea. She is a star athlete in her college and recently won a marathon. She complains of increasing fatigue recently. Which of the following is the patient at the highest risk for?

Click Your Answer Below

Would you like to access teaching points and more information on this topic?

Improve Content - Become an Author or Editor and get free access to the entire database, free eBooks, as well as free CME/CE as it becomes available. If interested, please click on "Sign Up" to register.

Purchase- Want immediate access to questions, answers, and teaching points? They can be purchased above at Apps and eBooks.

Sign Up

Female Development - References


Snyder CK, Puberty: An Overview for Pediatric Nurses. Journal of pediatric nursing. 2016 Nov - Dec;     [PubMed]
Beckman DA,Feuston M, Landmarks in the development of the female reproductive system. Birth defects research. Part B, Developmental and reproductive toxicology. 2003 Apr;     [PubMed]
Slough JM,Hennrikus W,Chang Y, Reliability of Tanner staging performed by orthopedic sports medicine surgeons. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2013 Jul;     [PubMed]
Rowlands S,Amy JJ, Preserving the reproductive potential of transgender and intersex people. The European journal of contraception     [PubMed]
Vander Borght M,Wyns C, Fertility and infertility: Definition and epidemiology. Clinical biochemistry. 2018 Dec;     [PubMed]
Rezai S,Bisram P,Lora Alcantara I,Upadhyay R,Lara C,Elmadjian M, Didelphys Uterus: A Case Report and Review of the Literature. Case reports in obstetrics and gynecology. 2015;     [PubMed]
El-Maouche D,Arlt W,Merke DP, Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Lancet (London, England). 2017 Nov 11;     [PubMed]
Papanikolaou A,Michala L, Autonomous Ovarian Cysts in Prepubertal Girls. How Aggressive Should We Be? A Review of the Literature. Journal of pediatric and adolescent gynecology. 2015 Oct;     [PubMed]
Loveless MB, Female athlete triad. Current opinion in obstetrics     [PubMed]
Latronico AC,Brito VN,Carel JC, Causes, diagnosis, and treatment of central precocious puberty. The lancet. Diabetes     [PubMed]
Schoelwer M,Eugster EA, Treatment of Peripheral Precocious Puberty. Endocrine development. 2016;     [PubMed]
Brillante B,Guthrie L,Van Ryzin C, McCune-Albright Syndrome: An Overview of Clinical Features. Journal of pediatric nursing. 2015 Sep-Oct;     [PubMed]
Mongan NP,Tadokoro-Cuccaro R,Bunch T,Hughes IA, Androgen insensitivity syndrome. Best practice     [PubMed]
Ríos Orbañanos I,Vela Desojo A,Martinez-Indart L,Grau Bolado G,Rodriguez Estevez A,Rica Echevarria I, Turner syndrome: From birth to adulthood. Endocrinologia y nutricion : organo de la Sociedad Espanola de Endocrinologia y Nutricion. 2015 Dec;     [PubMed]


The intent of StatPearls is to provide practice questions and explanations to assist you in identifying and resolving knowledge deficits. These questions and explanations are not intended to be a source of the knowledge base of all of medicine, nor is it intended to be a board or certification review of Pediatrics-Medical Student. The authors or editors do not warrant the information is complete or accurate. The reader is encouraged to verify each answer and explanation in several references. All drug indications and dosages should be verified before administration.

StatPearls offers the most comprehensive database of free multiple-choice questions with explanations and short review chapters ever developed. This system helps physicians, medical students, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and allied health professionals identify education deficits and learn new concepts. StatPearls is not a board or certification review system for Pediatrics-Medical Student, it is a learning system that you can use to help improve your knowledge base of medicine for life-long learning. StatPearls will help you identify your weaknesses so that when you are ready to study for a board or certification exam in Pediatrics-Medical Student, you will already be prepared.

Our content is updated continuously through a multi-step peer review process that will help you be prepared and review for a thorough knowledge of Pediatrics-Medical Student. When it is time for the Pediatrics-Medical Student board and certification exam, you will already be ready. Besides online study quizzes, we also publish our peer-reviewed content in eBooks and mobile Apps. We also offer inexpensive CME/CE, so our content can be used to attain education credits while you study Pediatrics-Medical Student.