Getting your first period was once a milestone anticipated by teenaged girls with a mix of excitement and dread.
Now girls as young as 8 are experiencing the onset of puberty, and parents are facing the challenge of talking about menstruation and sex with girls barely through playing with dolls.
For researchers, early puberty is a troubling issue. Some are concerned that hormones in the food supply are the culprit; others suspect pesticides, obesity or even too much time spent in front of computer and TV screens.
But marketers have found a silver lining. A new crop of first-period kits aimed at younger girls is now selling online and at select stores.
The kits, sold on chatty, cheeky websites, are filled with information written in youth-friendly lingo, along with tampons, pads, panty liners - even thong liners - and personal wipes designed to appeal to this young, yet fertile (pardon the pun) crowd.
"My First Cycle [Kit]addresses that demographic," says Toyna Chin, the San Francisco-based founder of Petite Amie, which also sells kits aimed at teens.
Precocious puberty, as it's termed, has sparked a debate within the medical community. Some consider 8 and 9 to be within the range of normal age, but others argue such early menstruation could mask an underlying problem, says Jorge Pinzon, chairman of the Canadian Paediatric Society's Adolescent Health Committee.
For the youngest girls, Dot Girl, a Seattle company, sells a product-filled First Period Kit for $18 (U.S.). Encased in a pink or baby-blue pack that could just as easily hold toys or pencil crayons, the kit comes with assorted supplies, including a heating pad to help soothe cramps. The owners say the packaging and product information are purposely juvenile.
"We wanted to keep it on the young side," Dot Girl co-founder Terri Goodwin says. "It seems that girls are starting earlier and there's so much out there that wants them to grow up faster."
Dot Girl reports monthly sales have increased 70 per cent since June.
The feminine products are exactly the same as adult versions sold by major manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble - which, for its part, has set up a kid-friendly site beinggirl.ca - as regulators insist.
But the packaging for Dot Girl and others is often decorated with cartoon characters and cute logos, and is unabashedly wooing a tween market even more likely to be embarrassed by their emerging sexual reality than their older counterparts. Then there are Mom and Dad.
"It is catching parents by surprise," says Kathy Pickus, Ms. Goodwin's sister and co-founder.
"No one's really prepared."
The idea for the Dot Girl brand, which launched earlier this year, came when Ms. Pickus's daughter, now 19, approached puberty while in grade school. Despite their mother having been a nurse, Ms. Goodwin and Ms. Pickus recall being panicked about what was happening to their bodies when they first menstruated. So Ms. Pickus put together a kit for her daughter to keep in her gym bag, which included a clean pair of underwear, pads, tampons and wipes.
"I wanted her to have something in case it happened when she was away from home," she says.
Both companies have also created interactive communities at dotgirlproducts.com and http://www.mypetiteamie.com where girls can share tales of first periods, ask questions and swap information.
Ms. Chin says that 20 per cent of the questions submitted to experts on her site are written by parents. (In many cases, Ms. Chin fields questions from the Hispanic and Asian communities, which she says still consider tampons as threatening virginity. She addresses this myth in her kits' booklets, but also markets a pad-only teen kit.)
It wasn't always such a minefield for girls and their parents. From the early 1900s to today, the median age of menarche, the medical term for first period, has dropped from 16 to 12½ in North America, says Dr. Pinzon, a pediatrician at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
Despite a growing number of cases of early menarche in eight- and nine-years-olds, many within the medical community caution against considering them within the range of normal.
"They are worried that you may miss evidence of pathologies that might be causing it," Dr. Pinzon says, adding that the jury is out on the broader potential causes of the onset of menstruation at younger ages.
He says there's no doubt, however, that early sexual development in girls can have serious psychological effects, especially since boys trail behind by about two years. "The disparity, if the young person is not prepared, can cause teasing and inappropriate situations," he says.
Developing early can also be a risk factor for girls for eating disorders and premature initiation of sexual activity, Dr. Pinzon says.
The first-period marketers say their products alleviate some of the related angst. Since the packaging looks nothing like traditional feminine products, girls needn't fear shopping at the drug store. Even better, they say, are online sales. Girls and teens can get regular monthly deliveries timed to their cycles, avoiding a trip to the store altogether.
"What we've done is address the whole embarrassment factor," says Ms. Chin, who has been selling her kit online for $21.99 (U.S.) since the summer.
She declined to disclose sales figures.
Ms. Chin has also identified a potentially loyal audience.
"Young girls are your first brand users," she says. "It's important for any company to try and get that target audience as young as possible."