By the time your baby gets into a groove with her bottle, you can probably start thinking about breaking the bond. Most babies are ready to start drinking from a sippy cup between 6 and 9 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And by 12 months, it's best to boot the bottle altogether. One major reason: Once a baby starts walking, she's likely to carry her bottle around with her, whereas an infant fed by her parent will generally have the bottle removed right after feeding. If the bottle contains anything other than water, frequent sipping can lead to tooth decay.
One recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that 9 months may be the optimal age to wean babies from the bottle, regardless of whether those bottles hold formula or pumped breast milk. Parents who followed a one-week plan to switch their 9-month-old to a sippy cup were 60 percent less likely to have a child who was still using bottles at age 2, compared with parents who didn't receive any advice at all. Even better, the process was relatively stress-free. "Parents who waited until after age 1 to wean their baby off the bottle seemed to have a more difficult time," says study coauthor Jonathon Maguire, M.D., a pediatrician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
Because your child may be very attached to his bottle -- no matter what his age -- the thought of abruptly taking it away from him from can be daunting. So that's why we've compiled expert tips to help ensure the smoothest possible transition, regardless of any obstacles your child may face.
Booting the Bottle
If your child doesn't know how to use a sippy cup...
A baby who can sit up by herself, hold her head up, and open her mouth for a spoon is ready to add a cup to her mealtime mix. First do a quick show-and-tell by holding the cup to her mouth and dribbling some liquid onto her lips; take the valve out of a non-spill cup in order to do this. If you're using a cup with handles, hold them so that your baby sees how to maneuver them herself. If she doesn't get the hang of it, try using a straw. Consider a small plastic water bottle with a spout and a fold-out straw. Once you squeeze the bottle and squirt the drink into your child's mouth a few times, she should start figuring out how to suck from the spout.
If your baby adores her bottle...
Start with a slow-and-easy approach, replacing one regular bottle feeding with a sippy cup. Do this every few days until you're completely bottle-free. When that happens, make a big deal of the milestone and help your child understand that it's a good thing -- it means she's getting bigger. "Right before my daughter's first birthday, I had her throw out a bottle and say, 'Bye-bye.' Then we told the bottle she didn't need it anymore," says Erin Ridley, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "I put all the other bottles out of sight. She did great!" If your child isn't up for such a change, hide the bottles one by one.
If your little one really likes to suck on things...
Sucking can be a way for babies to seek comfort, so offer a substitute lovey (say, a blankie or a stuffed animal) while he switches to cups. But then make sure you don?t let your child repeat the pattern and get overly attached to his new cup. ?Lots of children like to carry a sippy around too, so it?s best to give an open cup at snacktime and mealtime,? says Katie Mulligan, R.D., a pediatric dietitian in Warwick, Rhode Island. This will help encourage the concept of drinking only when seated.
If you worry your baby will go hungry without a bottle...
Between 6 and 12 months, as your baby eats more solid food, the amount of formula or breast milk he drinks will naturally decline. So yes, he may drink less as he figures out how to use his sippy cup, but he'll probably also take a keener interest in his jarred peaches -- which is totally normal. If you're worried, try serving your baby three meals a day of solid food, along with a sippy cup of formula or breast milk, recommends Jill Castle, R.D., a pediatric dietitian in Nashville. Offer regular bottles between meals, which can serve as snacks. As your baby gets bigger and eats more solids, slowly phase out the bottles so that your baby is off them by 12 months.
If your baby cries when she can't have a bottle in her crib...
Taking the bottle away at bedtime is a good idea even if you're not transitioning to a sippy cup just yet. A bottle in bed may be soothing, but all that liquid pools in your little one's mouth once she's asleep, boosting the likelihood of both cavities and ear infections. Make over your baby's bedtime routine by feeding her in a chair, then offering another comfort object for her to hold there instead, like a favorite teddy bear. Once she's used to that, replace the bottle with a sippy cup -- and a snuggle. "When I introduced the sippy cup, I held my boys close while they drank from it, much like bottle-feeding," says Jessie Charles, a mother of three from Brigham City, Utah. "I think the closeness and one-on-one time made the transition a lot easier."
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.