First comes breast or bottle, then sippy cup, right? Not so fast. Experts report you may want to just skip the sippy cup for your baby. Surpisingly, sippies weren't designed as a tool for feeding development, but were invented years ago by a dad who just wanted to keep his carpets clean! (Ha ha, we can relate.) Today, parents often think that a sippy cup is what they are supposed to offer to help kids eventually learn to drink from an open cup.
The occasional use of a hard-spouted sippy cup is nothing to worry about, but it's easy to become dependent on anything that makes a parent's life easier. Here's what the experts say may happen when babies drink from a sippy cup frequently over a prolonged period.
Pediatrician Dr. Nimali Fernando, co-author of Raising a Healthy Happy Eater, says: "Sippy cups encourage babies to do just that, to sip. But constant sipping on anything but water isn't good for the health of a baby's new teeth. Acid from the drink may wear down the enamel and demineralize teeth, leading to tooth decay. Babies need a break for the teeth to recover from the acid damage." Just a note: according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies shouldn't be drinking anything but water out of a cup anyway.
Lack of Hunger Pangs
Sippy cups are tempting because kids can take them anywhere! Dr. Fernando stresses that, "When kids cart around a sippy cup, repeatedly sucking on drinks between meals, babies are not as hungry for the nutritious foods at mealtime." Babies as young as six months are ready for scheduled meal and snack times to eat mindfully, as a response to hunger. Space snacks and meals about two hours apart and offer water in between.
Oral Motor Delays
As a speech therapist who also specializes in childhood feeding development, I recommend that my clients skip the sippy cup if they don't have a medical reason to use one. (Some children with swallowing problems require a valved cup for safety.) Spouted cups sit over the front of the tongue with each swallow. When children only suck on long spouts, they may not learn to develop what is termed a "mature swallow pattern." By 12 months of age, babies learn to lift and push up the tongue tip inside the mouths to swallow, just like an adult. When anything holds the tongue tip down with each swallow it can cause a tongue-thrust and a delay in oral motor development.
Kristie Gatto, an expert in mouth development and author of Sam the Super Chewer Eats notes that children who haven’t developed the correct swallow pattern may have trouble biting into food with their front teeth, and instead moving food around for chewing and scooping food onto the center of their tongue so they can swallow it. These kids may have problems breaking down food for good digestion and may develop picky eating habits when nutritious food are too challenging to eat.
Once babies can suck soft foods off their fingers or purees from a spoon, they are ready to learn straw-drinking. Here's how:
Babies can be offered a cup that has a cut-out lid (much like a coffee cup lid we get on our coffees to-go) once they can sit upright independently and hold objects steady at about six months. Fill the cup to the top so that baby doesn't have to tip it far to find the liquid. The feedback babies get from weighted objects in little hands teaches the brain how to move that object through space or how far to tip.
Once baby gets the idea and can control a cup with a cut-out lid, try offering a small, baby-sized cup filled to the top with a favorite puree. The heavier puree is less likely to spill than water and easier to see. Be sure to have a spot on the table or tray where the cup goes after each taste. Teach baby to put the cup there and you'll be wiping up fewer spills during this learning curve!
If you need to offer a sippy cup on occasion just for your sanity, it's fine! Just try your best to limit them (or skip them all together) and teach your child to drink from a spill-proof straw cup to prevent spills.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an award-winning author, international speaker on parenting, and feeding expert. Her fourth book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 101 Easy Activities and Recipes will be published in October 2017.