The Surprising Reason Sippy Cups Can Hurt Your Toddler

While working as a volunteer dentist in Africa, I was surprised by all the beautiful smiles I was seeing.

Children would get into the dental chair, and I’d immediately notice their textbook-perfect straight teeth, perfectly developed jaws, and wide smiles—and yet none of them had ever seen a dentist, much less gotten orthodontic treatment. They didn’t have any cavities and, for the most part, had nearly perfect oral health.

As a young dentist fresh out of dental school at the time, I was baffled. Where were the cavities and crooked teeth I had grown accustomed to seeing in my Western patients?

what is wrong with sippy cups

These children certainly had their health challenges growing up in remote, rural parts of Africa, but they did have one thing in their favor: they had never seen a sippy cup.

Sippy cups are a staple in Western culture, but, unbeknownst to many parents, can do a lot of harm to a child’s facial growth, jaw growth, and development of the airway.

How They Can Hurt A Growing Toddler

Sippy cups prevent normal development. During breastfeeding, a mother’s nipple adapts to the child’s mouth—but with a sippy cup, the child’s mouth adapts to the hard plastic of the sippy cup. The sucking forces of a child suckling on a breast actually encourages proper development of the mouth, teeth, swallow reflex, roof of the mouth, jaw, airway, and face. But these sucking forces change once you put hard plastic in a child’s mouth with a sippy cup—and prolonged use can lead to changes in facial growth and development, speech issues, a small airway (which can impact the quality of their sleep breathing), and crooked teeth.

Sippy cups also cause cavities and decay. How long you expose your teeth to sugar matters much more when it comes to cavities than how much sugar you consume. Sippy cups encourage sipping on a sugary drink over long periods of time, but as far as the teeth are concerned, we’re much better off consuming sugar in one go. Sweet treats are great, but they’re best confined to mealtime instead of stretching out the sugar exposure over hours.

Go Sippy Free: Strategies for Parents

If breastfeeding is an option for you, consider it, as it’s nature’s best method for preventing issues that can come along with prolonged sippy cup usage. If you can’t breastfeed, work with your dentist and pediatrician, who can suggest other methods for ensuring your child’s mouth, teeth, jaw, and face are growing and developing properly.

Trade sippy cups for a stainless steel cup or a toddler glass with a silicone safety sleeve (use without the straw when your little one is at home). Many companies are making these little cups now, with handles that help little hands as they transition from a bottle. Roll up the carpets and fill the cup only halfway to minimize spillage. They’ll learn much faster than you think!

Make water the default. Apple juice and other sweet drinks, although they may be natural, reprogram taste buds to become accustomed to more and more sugar. Making water the default helps kids learn to appreciate the great taste of a glass of water.

Saliva production is at its highest during a meal, and since saliva acts as an acid neutralizer, it protects teeth from decay. By letting your kids enjoy sweet treats like fruit and milk during mealtime, you leverage the protective benefit of saliva, which is already on board.

Sippy cups have become such a staple; it may take time to make the transition, but change is happening: Day care centers everywhere are starting to ask that toddlers not be dropped off with a sippy cup. The state of New York has even called for warning labels to be added to sippy cup packaging.

While it may be inconvenient at first to go sippy cup free, the benefits far outweigh the switching costs. The evidence is clear that these children have a better chance of developing naturally, setting them up for a lifetime of better health.

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  1. rebecca greene says:

    what is your opinion on the 360 style cups like munchkin and sassy make? are these as problematic as traditional sippy cups?

  2. What about the soppy cups with silicone nipples? They conform to the mouth a little…

  3. Mark Burhenne DDS says:

    This is a difficult position to be in. First, always have your child monitored by a capable dentist aware of these types of issues (oral development) up until age 14. Instead of relying on controlling (brushing) the buildup of biofilm (plaque) focus more on controlling the inside of your child’s mouth’s environment via diet. A pure paleo diet is best. But we all know how hard that can be too, in today’s society (i.e. school lunches). Somehow, brushing has to be perceived as a fun activity, so never make it a negative thing (only positive reinforcement). For drinking fluids, experiment with container types/shapes. Watch what the child holds well, with dexterity, when playing, then fabricate/modify or find such a shape in a drinking vessel. Let me know how this works. Good luck.

  4. What do you do with a special needs child that has trouble both holding a bottle/cup and sipping out of a straw or cup. She can only do a silicone mouth piece. I’m crazy worried about her teeth especially because she fights like a beast when I try to brush them.

  5. What about cups with a straw? We never used traditional sippy cups but did use straw cups with our first. Now that our second is almost at the age where he will start using cups I would like to know if the straws are bad as well? Both were/are breastfed. Thank you.

    1. Mark Burhenne DDS says:

      I do think straws are as bad as using sippy cups. Most of what you see on the web about straws is about it causing wrinkles (hmm. my, how vein we really are). Take a drink from a zippy cup and then from a straw. Less sucking motion with the zippy cup, but lip posture is virtually the same. Lower lip slightly forward perhaps with the zippy cup. Essentially a sucking motion with anything but a deformed mothers nipple can be bad. A non-derforming silicone bottle nipple or nothing at all (using a straw) can cause changes in the oral cavity while the child develops. However, if i had to choose between the two, I’d choose “straw”.