The pros and cons of cups, sippy cups, and straws

Girl drinking from spout cup sitting in highchair

With lots of cup options out there, which should you try? All cups, whether an open, straw, or sippy top, will promote your child’s development because they all require her to use her tongue and mouth differently than she did when drinking from a bottle. The key is to offer a variety of cups to practice new drinking skills and encourage the transition away from the bottle.

Many parents first turn to a sippy cup because of their convenience (fewer spills and easy to carry along), but whether they have a hard or soft spout, sippy cups don’t offer much in the way of oral skills development. Just like with a bottle, baby places her tongue at the front of her mouth to form a seal and suckle while using a sippy cup. For this reason, some pediatricians and speech and language pathologists recommend straw cups over sippy cups. With straw cups, your baby is more likely to learn the new skill of pulling her tongue to the back of her mouth when she drinks.

In addition to learning the proper tongue and mouth placement for drinking (rather than suckling), your baby must also master the hand-eye coordination required to hold, lift, and tip her cup towards her mouth, all while sitting upright on her own. Straw cups offer less practice for these skills because your baby can successfully drink from them while still reclining and sucking, and not sitting upright or fully tipping the cup to her mouth.

There are also other options, such as the no-spill cups that bridge the gap between sippy, straw, and open cups.

Developmentally, there is no reason why your baby needs to use a sippy or straw cup in the first place. Some babies go straight from a bottle to an open cup, so consider this option as well. Regardless, babies can be picky about cup preferences so be flexible and help your baby be flexible. Exposing your baby to a variety of cups will improve hand-eye coordination and work the face and mouth muscles to improve drinking, feeding and speech.

What to Do

Try different types of cups

Some children need a subtler transition from a bottle to a softer-spout cup, while others will need a very obvious distinction between bottle (of milk or formula) and “not bottle”, such as a hard plastic cup containing water. Experiment with different cups and liquids to determine what makes the most sense for your baby.

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 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. Pediatricians recommend presenting water in a cup for learning more than actual drinking between 6-12 months of age, so if you’re having a hard time with spillage, put a beach towel under her chair until she gets the hang of sipping.

Allow your baby to sip water from your open cup

Practice makes perfect. Let your 6-7 month old baby practice drinking from a glass 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 her oral motor control to learn how to seal her lips on the side of an open cup, receive some water, keep that seal while swallowing and move the cup away from her mouth. You will see lots of dribbling down her shirt and spilling initially, but making a mess is part of the fun! (And you might want to keep that beach towel handy.)

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 her milk in a bottle and the last few ounces in a cup. When you switch out the bottle for the cup, continue to snuggle with her like you normally would when feeding from the bottle. Employ this method particularly for the final nursing or bottle of the day, right before bed. You can also try having your baby suck on just the familiar bottle nipple for a few seconds, and then switch over to a cup containing milk. For babies who are exclusively fed at the breast, follow all other suggestions in this section.

Teach straw drinking

Place a straw in a glass of water, use your pointer finger to cover the opening and lift the straw out of the cup, creating a vacuum and sealing the water inside the straw. Lower the bottom of the straw in your little one’s mouth and release your finger momentarily to allow a little water to drip in. She should instinctively seal her lips around the straw and begin to suck. After this introduction and some practice, she will learn to suck fluids through the top of the straw on her own. While some little ones take to a straw immediately at 12 months, others will master the skill at around 18 months.

Offer cups with easy-to-hold handles

Holding, lifting, and tipping her own 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.

Switch completely to an open cup as soon as your toddler can handle it

A sippy cup can become a security blanket for a toddler, just like a bottle can, so work toward presenting only an open cup.

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

Disassemble cups, lids and straws completely before washing

Sippy and straw cups with lots of parts have tons of nooks and crannies to 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 hand-washing or running through the dishwasher. Look for 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 sippy cup or bottle, the milk may pool in the back of her throat and coat her teeth with sugar for the entire night. Make sure to separate your baby from her drinking source and brush those teeth well before bed!