There's a brilliant and increasing bank of nutritional information available to help families make healthy choices and understand the value of improving diets. But as well as what children eat and drink, how they eat and drink is important too.
More and more health experts are concerned about babies and young children sucking from spouts or from no-spill seals, and say this sucking habit, (not to be confused with the breastfeeding 'suckle'), is implicated in problems such as rotten teeth and orthodontic issues. With dental decay the most common cause of childhood hospitalisation, leading dentists and orthodontists advocate the use of an open cup from as early an age as possible.
The reason for choosing an open cup is to encourage proper sipping, which is recommended as being best for oral health. Baby teeth have a crucial role to play as 'placeholders' - holding space for the second teeth to move into. Because the enamel is thin on baby teeth they are easily susceptible to decay and erosion, which means it really is vital that they are carefully looked after to help them stay where they are needed. As dental decay is generally preventable, leading dentists recommend taking all possible steps to prevent it, including giving drinks in an open cup from 6 months. As well as a positive step in preventing tooth decay, an open cup can promote muscle use that stimulates correct jaw and facial growth and help avoid crooked teeth and orthodontic problems.
Experts will always recommend water over drinks such as juice and this is driven by the shocking rise in child tooth decay. But prolonged use of a teat or spout may encourage habitual comfort sucking and the 'drip feed' effect meaning teeth are continually exposed to acid attack if the child is drinking milk or juices. Sugary drinks should never be given as this can cause very rapid tooth decay and most sippy or 'spoutless' cups carry a warning about these hazards.
Katherine Pearce, Principal Dental Nurse and Manager of the Maxillofacial and Dental Department at world-leading Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, says:
"As oral health professionals at GOSH, we encourage children to move to an open cup as soon as possible to reduce the risk of dental caries which are often connected to bottles or sippy cups."
There has been such a huge trend in recent years for babies and young children to suck food from food pouches on a frequent basis. As convenient and easy as this is, according to orthodontists, delaying a child's chewing action can be a factor in developing orthodontic problems such as narrow dental arches, crowded or crooked teeth and malocclusion.
We are becoming a nation of suckers and ultimately this is not the best thing for our children!
"Choosing an open cup means you are allowing your child to develop a healthy sipping habit. Spouts and no-spill valves that mean a child has to suck, rather than sip, contribute to poor facial and dental development. I've treated thousands of children; developing healthy oral habits from an early age has a great influence on how your child's teeth will develop. A young child's teeth, jaw and muscles are still growing so it's a crucial time and parents have the power to steer their infants away from needing extensive orthodontic treatment later in life,"Dr Derek Mahony world-renowned Orthodontist of Full Face Orthodontics Pty Ltd, Australia.
Despite all the clear warnings of sippy cups and the overwhelming benefits to open cup sipping, the choice for parents is limited. Normal cups are simply too wide, and so don't help the liquid to funnel into the child's mouth, leading to mess and frustration. It is a tough call to expect a baby or young child to master the art if the tools are too big for the job - imagine us as adults trying to drink from something far too big like a jug or a bucket!
It is this subject of spillage that is one of the most frequent conversations I have with parents when discussing open cups and weaning or solid-feeding - and it's totally understandable. Many families' lives are busy, and we've had a 'no-spill' message coming at us from so many directions that it's often overshadowed whether a product is actually good for our baby or not and the fact that a cup is for drinking from. it is no wonder many parents have avoided open cups.
But given the chance to try, our little ones are often brilliant at picking up new skills. I always use the analogy of a balance bike when reassuring parents how capable babies and young children are of becoming healthy sippers - If you've seen a child learn to ride a bike using a balance bike, chances are they didn't need stabilisers when they grew bigger and moved on to the fully fledged version. It's the same with a cup. If you were to try drinking from a bucket you'd find it's not all that easy! Use the right sized cup from the start and children don't need stabilisers when they move on. They've already learnt the skill and what's more, they've begun a healthy lifestyle habit from the very start. No stabilisers required and no compromise to their health.
So, how to introduce an open cup? As well as considerations such as safety-testing, BPA-free, robust, and no sharp edges, the first step in giving an open cup is to ensure your child has one that's the right size that they can hold and that will fit to their mouths, and by that I mean really mini! Using a truly open cup, without any spout or no-spill valve/seal, also means your child doesn't have to suck like they're impersonating a vacuum cleaner and doesn't have to adopt an unnatural (and easily unnoticed) tongue position.
Start at highchair/mealtimes so your little one is seated and in a good position. Begin with just a small amount of liquid; just 10ml or even less is enough to try. Be close, be patient, both of you hold the cup and guide it to their mouth. When they move on to trying by themselves, let your hand hover nearby. Help your child find the table/surface so they start to feel how to place the cup down and pick it up again. Sitting with them and letting them watch you drink from an open cup is great too. They love to copy!
Image: author's own
The benefits of adopting this healthy sipping skill are numerous, including dental health, orthodontic development and fine motor skills. Children feel so proud of themselves and parents are often amazed and very proud too when they see what their child can do given the opportunity. It might take practise or it might come straight away. Whichever is the case, it really is worth it.