Dublin - Girls as young as nine are being encouraged to give themselves womanly curves by wearing figure-enhancing padded bras on sale in Irish stores.
The National Parents' Council has condemned the practice as inappropriate and potentially damaging to girls' self-image at a vulnerable age.
Penneys is selling padded bras aimed at girls aged just nine to 10 years, while Dunnes has figure-enhancing bras on sale for girls aged 10 and over.
Penneys is also selling knickers to girls aged nine to 10 with the message 'This chick bites back' emblazoned on them .
The sale of this type of underwear is part of an unwelcome trend toward early sexualisation of children, and gives them the wrong messages very early, said National Parents' Council (Primary) chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather.
"At this age, girls should be running around outside playing, they shouldn't be worried about their figures and making themselves look older. If they start to give themselves a bust at nine, what will they be like when they're teenagers," she said.
"It's a very insidious practice to target a girl's self-image at this age and sell clothes to give them a figure they don't naturally have at this stage.
"It also might make some people look at them differently on the street and that's entirely inappropriate and worrying at that age," she said.
Parents should exercise common sense by refusing to buy these garments for their daughters, she said.
"They could also mention it in store and bring pressure to bear on the management not to stock inappropriate items," she said.
But Penneys defended the sale of these bras to young girls. "These are moulded rather than padded items and they are made that way for modesty rather than shape enhancement purposes," a spokesperson said.
"Many young girls feel self-conscious at that age and want to make sure they are well covered-up with a lightly padded item," she said.
The cut and shape of these bra and knicker sets was fuller than those targeted at adult women and was felt to be appropriate for their age, she added.
They had been on sale, sized by age, in Penneys children's departments since last year after initially being sold as small adult sizes within the women's lingerie department.
In regard to slogans on knickers, Penneys felt the colours and patterns on all their children's underwear was suitable for the age groups targeted.
Last year, a number of stores stopped selling children's stationery emblazoned with the Playboy bunny logo after criticism from parents' groups.
By Aideen Sheehan