That sippy cup can prevent spills, sure. But for every sticky crisis averted, there are several questions. Is a sippy cup with a straw developmentally appropriate? Is it time to transition to a proper cup? Are sippy cups bad for teeth, and what kind of sippy cup is best for teeth? It behooves parents to consider and constantly reconsider the use of spouted drinking containers. Sippy cups may not be dangerous — specifically if used in moderation — but over-reliance can lead to very real problems.
“Dentists, pediatricians, speech therapists, and occupational therapists all agree that sippy cups serve more to keep parents’ floors clean, than as an actual necessary part of child development,” says Melissa R. Foster, a pediatric occupational therapist in Arkansas. “I would caution parents to the over-use of sippy cups, and weigh the benefits of independence over the real risks of cavities, speech delays, and sabotaging meal times.”
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends transitioning away from the bottle when an infant is one year old, to prevent the tooth decay that can occur when children’s teeth are exposed to milk sugars for long periods of time. This is when sippy cups tend to become part of the equation. The problem here is two-fold: Sippy cups allow on-demand access to calorie-laden beverages like juice and milk, which dampen a child’s appetite by throwing off their feeding patterns and cushioning the tummy-rumbling consequences of pickiness. And, more to the point, sippy cups promote immature sucking patterns that are appropriate for the bottle or breast, but not, as an increasing number of experts point out, for speech development. (In addition, sippy cups send about 2,200 toddlers per year to emergency rooms annually, largely due to injuries suffered after falling with the lid in their mouths.)
“Appropriate use of a sippy cup is at mealtime, or drinking water between meals, when the child picks up the cup, drinks, sets it down, and goes about his or her business,” Amy L. Delaney, a speech pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, told Fatherly. “It’s like anything in development. In moderation, most anything is okay.”
Speech pathologists, too, are rumored to dislike sippy cups. Children are supposed to transition from using the suckling reflex to drink to using a more mature suckling pattern in which the tongue retracts and lips tighten as they grow older. As the argument goes, sippy cups allow the tongue to remain lazy and the lips to remain loose.
Delany doesn’t buy it. She says that it’s actually “very rare that children suck on a sippy cup with the same pattern as a pacifier or thumb.” Still, she does worry about dental consequences — sucking and gnawing can affect tooth alignment — and overuse.
And there are potential benefits to using a sippy cup. Sippy cups can keep children hydrated in a spill-proof fashion, without requiring an enormous amount of clean-up and, in doing so, can help kids understand their own thirst. They can also be part of a variety of different cups parents use to help children understand different situations or simply develop drinking skills.
“I like to very gently expose infants to different vessels at an earlier age,” Foster says. “This can be from a sippy cup, open cup, straw cup, spoon, or simply taking drops from the end of a straw held from Mom’s glass of ice water. This is simply to broaden the infant’s sensory experiences.”
The best solution may be to search out an alternative altogether. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends that parents make a pop-up straw cup as children to transition to using normal adult cups. This way, the kids don’t spill and the risk of dental problems is minimized. Another option favored by some pediatricians is using sippy cups during mealtimes and never allowing them to become comfort objects. Why does this work? Because the limited scientific literature on the subject says sippy cups are fine if parents are in control of their use. Control is a lot easier to maintain during meals.
Still, the use of sippy cups remains precisely the sort topic that parents love to debate. That will remain the case even though the stakes, unless a kid is developing a truly unfortunate drinking habit, remain low.
“It’s a hot topic but, in general, it’s a transient mode of drinking for most kids,” Delany says. “What it comes down to is how it’s being used, and the persistent nature of it. There are millions of children that drink sippy cups and have no problems at all.”
Parent Guidelines for Sippy Cups
- Kids will drink more out of sippy cups — which can be a problem when it’s a sugary drink like milk or juice.
- When on-the-go, sippy cups with straws make a lot of practical sense. Go ahead, use them.
- When at home, think twice about offering the sippy cup. If they can make do with another vessel, it will be good to mix it up.
- It’s not necessarily about speech. New kinds of drinking vessels give toddlers new sensory experiences. This is good for them.