Babies spend countless hours gumming pacifiers, teethers, formula bottles and sippy cups.

All made of plastic.

Trouble is, some of the plastics used to make these products aren't as healthy as we would like them to be. Makers of baby products also aren't as forthcoming as they could be about the materials they use.

One particularly worrisome material is

TST Recommends

polycarbonate

, a durable plastic often used for bottles and sippy cups that contains Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is known to be a hormone disruptor and might also be linked to neural problems in young children, according to a report on

TheDailyGreen

.

Another problematic plastic is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is still used in teething toys because it can be made soft and pliable by adding

phthalates

, chemicals that can leach off of toys and that have been linked to a variety of health and developmental problems, which on

The Green Guide

and

Grist

explain succinctly.

Those recycling symbols on the bottom of many plastic materials can help guide parents to better choices. PVC gets the number 3. Number 7 is a miscellaneous category that includes polycarbonates.

Unless the packaging says that it's made from something else, you can assume a baby bottle with a number 7 on it is polycarbonate. Numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are better choices for plastics in general.

TheDailyGreen has a good

pictorial guide

to help sort them out.

These symbols are helpful only if manufacturers bother to stamp them on their products in a legible font size and in a place where shoppers can easily spot them. These several ifs became stumbling blocks for me on a recent shopping trip down the baby aisles at

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

.

Popular bottle brands like Dr. Brown's and

Energizer Holdings'

(ENR) - Get Report

Playtex offer polycarbonate bottles as well as alternatives made from less-controversial materials, but their packaging provides no information on which bottles are which and often prevents you from seeing the bottle bottom, where recycling information might be.

To be sure of what they're choosing, parents have to head to the

Dr Browns

or

Playtex

Web sites to jot down exact product names or note what the safer bottles look like.

The only bottles that were a plausible option for me were a three-pack of colorful Evenflo bottles with a label that stated they were "without BPA." But it didn't say what they were actually made from, and I'm not a big fan of selective disclosure.

Speaking of which, many bottles these days have a potentially confusing label that points out that the nipples are made of silicone, a relatively stable and safe material.

These labels can lull parents into a fall sense of security by directing their focus to the part that goes into the babies mouth and away from the plastic part where formula or breast milk might sit for hours, or be warmed up, and that is more likely to wear down during multiple trips through the dishwasher -- all things that can cause chemicals to leach out of the wrong kinds of plastic into the baby's drink.

Sippy cups were no better.

While more of them had recycling labels we could see, there is a wide variety of single and multiple use cups from a handful of brands and they look very similar. Choosing the safest ones requires more than just a cursory glance, which might be all a parent has time for if she's shopping with a squirmy toddler in tow.

Ironically, the biggest and best-known brands were often the least helpful. Cups bearing characters from the

Walt Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

stable often had no information, while cups from

The Learning Curve

had a reassuring recycling number 5 right on the packaging.

Gerber and Playtex were inconsistent, with no access to the bottom of some cups, no recycling information on others, and a reassuring number 2 or a number 5 on still others. One package of Gerber Graduates disposable cups had a recycling symbol on it that was far too small to be legible, so we couldn't tell if it was a 5 (good) or a 3 (not so good).

Teething toys, meanwhile, offered no helpful information whatsoever. Colorful caterpillars, butterflies and rings had packaging that showed toddlers happily chomping away on them. But whether they were from Sassy, Baby Einstein or

Mattel

's

(MAT) - Get Report

Fisher Price, the packaging offered up no information as to what they were made from, and seldom carry recycling stamps.

So what is a parent to do to avoid the recycling number guessing game that I played? They can stick to brands like

Born Free

and

Sassy

that have made well-publicized efforts to avoid controversial materials in their products. They can also turn to Web sites like Z-rec and softlanding.com that keep track of which brands of

bottles

,

sippy cups

and

teethers

to choose and avoid. But remember that these lists are works in progress as companies launch, discontinue and change their products all the time.

They can call companies like Disney (800-328-0368), Mattel (800-432-5437 for Fisher Price) and

Gerber

( GRB) (800-4-GERBER) to ask about a particular toy or bottle or ask for a list of the BPA or PVC-free products.

They can also avoid the issue altogether by opting for glass bottles, metal sippy cups or cloth teethers instead of ubiquitous plastic. Though, of course, these often cost more and take more effort to find.

I plan to go on the assumption that companies provide information when it benefits them, and withhold it if they think it's going to raise controversy or hurt sales. If a bottle or sippy cup or teether doesn't have something on the packaging to indicate that it's a good plastic I'm going to assume that the company is using materials I don't want in my daughter's mouth.

And I'll pass them by for something better.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site

.