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Do sippy cups help strengthen children’s tongue muscles for speech?
Q: I asked the teachers at my 14-month-old daughter’s daycare to offer her cups without lids. The director told me that toddlers need the sucking to develop the tongue muscles for speech, and if you take a sippy cup away too soon the child might have speech delays. Is this true?
A: Sippy cups can be helpful to teach older infants and young toddlers to learn to drink from a cup. Parents and childcare providers tend to like sippy cups because the liquid won’t spill out.

There has been discussion about the effect of sippy cups on toddlers’ speech. But speech pathologists have suggested that the concern is just the opposite of what your childcare provider suggested: when young children continue to drink from a sippy cup for several years, it may interfere with their speech development.

When children drink from the breast, bottle or sippy cup, their mouths do a “suckle swallow.” The tongue lays flat and moves forward and backward to draw the liquid to the back of the mouth to swallow. In contrast, drinking from a regular cup requires different mouth movements. The lips and cheeks suck the liquid onto the tongue, then the tongue squeezes, lifts and moves the liquid down the throat. Many experts believe that drinking from a cup helps build the muscles required for proper speech. In contrast, children who continue to suck for too long—either on a bottle, their thumbs or a sippy cup—may develop a tongue-thrusting pattern that can lead to lisping speech.

Dentists have raised another concern about sippy cups – namely, that children who drink milk or juice from sippy cups for hours at a time, especially at bedtime, get more tooth decay.

In all, it’s best to use sippy cups only during meal and snacks, and during the transition for older infants and young toddlers learning to use a regular cup. At 14 months of age, your daughter can learn to use a cup. Preventing and dealing with spills may require more individualized attention than your childcare provider can give your daughter. As a compromise, ask the childcare provider to give your daughter the sippy cup or a milk/juice box with a straw to minimize spills for the next few months, while you practice with her using a regular cup at home. Once your daughter can use the cup without spilling, it would be good for her to also use it at childcare.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician