Leptin may have a role in the initiation of puberty and the regulation of subsequent weight gain, but this hypothesis has not been tested by longitudinal study. We report data from 40 normal children (20 boys and 20 girls) followed from 8-16 yr of age with hormone measurements and auxology every 6 months. Before the onset of puberty, leptin levels were similar in boys and girls: G1, mean (95% confidence interval), 2.63 (2.17-3.20) ng/mL; B1, 2.47 (2.08-2.94) ng/mL (P = 0.64) and increased with age in both sexes (B, 0.107 +/- 0.042; P = 0.02). With the onset of puberty, leptin levels increased in girls (B2-B5, P < 0.0005), but decreased in boys (G2-G5, P < 0.0005). Similar positive independent relationships were seen between leptin and fat mass in girls (B, 0.106 +/- 0.022; P < 0.0005) and boys (B, 0.121 +/- 0.020; P < 0.0005), and negative relationships were found with fat-free mass [girls: B, -1.104 +/- 0.381 (P < 0.005); boys: B, -1.288 +/- 0.217 (P < 0.0005)]. Girls gained more fat mass than boys, whereas boys gained more fat-free mass, and this explained the sex difference in leptin levels. Leptin levels correlated significantly with a large number of other hormones, but none was independent of changes in body composition. In girls, but not in boys, low leptin levels during prepuberty (B1) predicted subsequent gains in the percent body fat during puberty (r = -0.75; P = 0.005). The sexual dimorphism in leptin levels during puberty reflects differential changes in body composition. Prepubertal leptin levels in girls also predict gains in the percent body fat.