Why You May Want to Skip the Sippy Cup for Your Baby

Are sippy cups really the best cup to introduce after (or alongside) breast or bottle? Experts suggest a straw or open cup instead, and here's why.

Toddler With Sippy Cup In High Chair Syda Productions/Shutterstock

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.

Tooth Decay

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.

Straw Drinking

Once babies can suck soft foods off their fingers or purees from a spoon, they are ready to learn straw-drinking. Here's how:

  1. Dip a soft, silicone straw into a small container of smooth puree and offer it to baby by presenting it like a spoon. THis helps baby adjust to the shape of the straw in their mouth.
  2. Once they are comfortable and close their mouth around the straw, count to two before removing the straw. Babies will suck if you leave the straw in place for a few seconds.
  3. Prime the straw with one inch of puree and present it, letting baby suck what's inside. The secret to this technique? It's the puree on the outside of the straw. That's what gets baby closing his lips and then sucking.
  4. Once he can manage that tiny bit of puree, gradually prime more for him until he can suck, swallow and breathe as he takes multiple sips of puree via the straw.
  5. Cut down the straw so that one inch sticks out of the container of puree. Make sure the tip of the straw has a dab of puree on it to tempt baby to close his mouth on it. Now, hold the container for baby and let him suck on the straw.
  6. Smooth purees are a thickened liquid, making it so much easier to control in the mouth than something thin and runny, like water. Once baby has learned to "drink" purees comfortably, gradually water down the puree until he can manage water with ease.
  7. Offer straw cups with a shorter straw, so that the tip of the straw reaches the tip of your child's tongue at rest behind his front teeth.

Open Cups

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.