Transitioning to Cups for Babies and Toddlers

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 6 minutes

What should I know about cups for babies and toddlers?

  • When to discontinue bottle use

  • Benefits of using a variety of cups to support optimal oral motor skill development

  • How to choose the best kinds of cups for your baby

Whether or not you continue to nurse throughout the toddler years, pediatricians recommend weaning your baby from the bottle (of breastmilk or formula) and switching to a toddler cup at approximately 12-24 months old.1

Transitioning from bottle to toddler cup (for all liquids other than directly from the breast) will allow your baby to exercise their face muscles, tongue, and soft palate, all of which are connected to speech and feeding.2,3

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Teaching your little one to use a cup

With so many cup options on the market, it can be overwhelming to understand which one to try with your baby. All cups, whether open, straw, or toddler sippy cup, will require your baby to use their tongue and mouth differently than when drinking from a bottle. Offering a variety of toddler cups allows your baby to practice new drinking skills as they transition away from the bottle.

In addition to learning the proper tongue and mouth placement for drinking, your baby must also master the hand-eye coordination required to hold, lift, and tip the toddler cup towards their mouth, all while sitting upright.4

According to the American Dental Association, to help your child learn how to sit, lift the cup, and sip, look for training cups that have:

  • A cup with a snap-on or screw-on lid that has a spout, but no spill-prevention valve

  • Cups with two handles

  • Cups with a weighted base to keep them upright and cut down on spills5

Training Cup / Sippy cup

Many parents purchase a typical sippy cup first because they’re no-spill and easy to tote around, however they’re essentially baby bottles with a slightly different design. With sippy cups, your baby has to suck – not sip – in order to get the liquid out. However, the aim is to shift from sucking (like from a bottle) to sipping (as you would with a cup).5

Note that training cups and sippy cup is meant to be used temporarily. Once your baby has learned how to sip, it is no longer needed, and an open cup is recommended.4,6,7

Straw cup

Straw toddler cups can help with learning how to sip; however, they offer less practice for the other skills. This is because your baby can successfully drink from a straw cup while still reclining and sucking, and not sitting upright or fully tipping the cup to their mouth.

Open cup

Some babies go straight from a bottle to an open cup, so consider this option as well. Babies are developmentally ready to sip from an open cup, held by another person, starting around 6 months of age.6

Once they’re able to sit up unassisted and seal their lower lip on the rim of the cup, you can practice by holding an open cup with a small amount of water or milk to your baby’s mouth, and tipping it slightly towards your baby.

Starting to practice with different cups at six months helps to ensure your baby is able to successfully transition off of the bottle around their first birthday.1

Read more: Dehydration in Kids: How to Keep your Baby or Tot Hydrated

Which cup: Bottom line

Sippy cups (without a valve) should only be used for a few months as a learning tool.  Once your little one can pick up the cup and tip it to sip, an open cup is the next step!

Straw cups are also a transition tool – but there are certain situations where they can continue to be useful, provided they are only used occasionally. A straw cup may be a good option for a long car or plane ride to help prevent spills. You can also consider a spout cup (without the internal straw), which requires your little one to tip the cup up to drink.

But the bottom line is that open cups should be used most often to ensure your little one’s mouth and tongue are developing appropriately.

How do I transition my baby to cups?

Try different types of cups

Some children need a subtler transition from a bottle to a softer-spout toddler cup, while others do well with the big jump between bottle (of breastmilk or formula) and a plastic toddler cup containing water.  Experiment with different cups to determine what works best for your baby.

Read more: What to Drink Instead of Sweetened Beverages

Remove the spill-proof valves from sippy cups

Don’t worry so much about spills. Instead, focus on letting your baby practice drinking from a cup. The spill-proof valves on toddler sippy cups may impede your baby’s success with drinking because they can make it more challenging for the child to get any liquid out of the cup, and they encourage sucking over sipping.

By removing the spill-proof valve or choosing a cup without one, your baby will have to learn to tip the cup and sip in order to get liquid from it, much like drinking from an open cup.

Allow your baby to sip water from your open cup

Practice makes progress! Let your 6+ month old baby practice drinking from a cup of water that you are holding. Or try holding a small, child-sized cup with a few tablespoons of water in it.

Your baby must develop oral motor control to learn how to seal their lips on the side of an open cup, receive some water, keep that seal while swallowing and move the cup away from their mouth.7

You will see lots of dribbling down baby’s shirt and spilling initially, but making a mess is part of the fun!

Present breastmilk or formula in a cup

Some babies have an easier time transitioning to a new cup if you present them with a familiar taste.

For babies who are exclusively or partially bottle-fed (as opposed to exclusively breastfed), try giving your baby half of their breastmilk or formula in a bottle and the last few ounces in a cup.

When you switch out the bottle for the cup, continue to snuggle with your baby like you normally would when feeding from the bottle. You can also try having your baby suck on the bottle nipple for a few seconds, and then switch over to a cup containing breastmilk or formula. For babies who are exclusively fed at the breast, follow all other suggestions in this section.

Read More: Introducing Formula to a Breastfed Baby

Offer toddler cups with easy-to-hold handles

Holding, lifting, and tipping the cup to drink is an important part of the learning process for your baby. Some companies sell handles that fit on bottles, sippy cups, and straw cups interchangeably, which can make for an easier transition.

However, because of their ease of holding and carrying around, many toddlers will hold onto their cup of liquid all day long, much like a security blanket.1 Additionally, sipping on breastmilk or formula, or other sugary beverages such as juice, all day long between meals can contribute to tooth decay.8

These are great reasons to seek out open cups with handles made for babies and toddlers and provide liquid at meal and snack times.

Additional helpful recommendations about baby and toddler cups

Do not let your child drink from a cup that is scratched or damaged

A worn cup with scratches is more likely to harbor bacteria and, if the damaged cup contains bisphenol A (BPA), may release small amounts of the chemical. While research on the effects of BPA on humans continues to advance, there is enough evidence confirming risk and many manufactures no longer use the chemical in their baby cups.9

Notice whether a cup sports a “BPA-free” label before purchasing.

Disassemble cups, lids and straws completely before washing

Toddler sippy and straw cups with lots of parts have nooks and crannies may trap bacteria and other germs – yet another reason to promote open cups as soon as your baby can handle them!

Separate all the valves from inside sippy cups and take out the straws to clean the cups thoroughly before handwashing or running through the dishwasher. Look for toddler cups that are easy to separate, clean and sterilize to make your life easier.

Do not let your child go to bed with a sippy cup or bottle

If your baby falls asleep while drinking from a toddler sippy cup or bottle, the milk may pool in the back of their throat and coat their teeth with sugar-containing liquid for the entire night.3,9 (Even breastmilk has naturally occurring sugar!)

Be sure to separate your baby from their drinking source and brush those teeth before bed.

Let’s Chat!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Healthy Eating for Kids

Introducing solids: Purees versus Baby Led Weaning

Choosing the Best Bottles and Nipples for your Baby

What Type of Milk Should my Toddler Drink?