And you thought sugar was the only cavity culprit!

When used incorrectly, sippy cups can—and increasingly do—contribute to tooth decay. Dentists say they are treating a growing number of toddlers for cavities and believe sippy cups are partly to blame.

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), 25 percent of our nation's children have 80 percent of the cavities. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that over 19 percent of preschoolers have untreated cavities. Untreated cavities are not just painful but can lead to bigger problems including oral abscesses and facial swelling and infection.

Developed as transitional tools to help young children recently weaned from a bottle manage a full-size cup, sippy cups were never intended for long-term use. But parents, who enjoy their convenience, unwittingly encourage misuse. "Sippy cups have become accessories for young children," explains Lisa DeLucia, DDS, diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry. "They prevent spills and make life easier for mom and dad. As a result they are used for months and years at a time." Many children become so attached, they take their sippies to bed—a big no, no, says the Rochester, NY-based dentist.

The Trouble With Sippy Cups

When young children constantly sip milk, juice, or other sweetened beverage from a cup all day long, their upper front teeth get immersed in sugar, which causes tooth decay. "There is a distinctive pattern of cavities in the upper front teeth from extended bottle or sippy cup use," explains DeLucia.

Eating or drinking a sugary food sets off a 15- to 30-minute acid attack in the mouth when it reacts with the bacteria that reside there. The over-production of acid by the bacteria weakens the enamel of the teeth and causes cavities (holes in the enamel).

Saliva is produced to buffer the acid, but if a child's mouth is being constantly washed with sugary liquid, the saliva doesn't get a chance to rinse the acid away.

What's more, baby teeth hold the place for permanent teeth and help guide them into the correct position, so protecting them is important. "Decayed baby teeth may have extensive decay and infection, requiring extraction, which could affect the development of the permanent teeth waiting to move in," says DeLucia.

How to Wean Kids From Sippy Cups

Experts recommend weaning a child from the bottle directly to a regular cup. "From a developmental standpoint, children should be able to grab a cup with two hands by 12 to 14 months of age so sippy cups aren't really necessary," says DeLucia who admits she is not a fan of the plastic drinkware but understands their popularity. "Extra patience and commitment on the part of the parents would be required though, since messy spills are inevitable."

DeLucia and others suggest restricting use of sippy cups to mealtime and snack time. And if the child insists on having his sippy cup, fill it with water between meals. Having your child swish and swallow with water after drinking sugary drinks is another good way to protect his teeth.

Your Child's First Dental Visit

Seeing a dentist regularly is the best way to establish good oral hygiene. The AAPD's motto is: One dental visit when there's one tooth can equal zero cavities. They recommend establishing a "dental home" for the family by the child's first birthday. (Note: Baby's first tooth usually emerges by 6 months but he won't have a full set of chompers until he's 3.)

DeLucia urges parents to put the first dental visit in a positive light. Here's how:

  • "The largest factor in a successful first dental visit is the parent's attitude," she says reminding parents that anxiety can be contagious. "If mom is worried or adverse to having her teeth examined by a dentist, the child may pick up on that and become uncooperative in the chair."
  • Talk to your child about what to expect. The appointment will be short and painless. Tell him the dentist will look inside his mouth, count his teeth, and take your family's oral history.
  • Reading a book together can also be helpful. "Many popular children's television characters have their own version of My First Trip to the Dentist books," says DeLucia. "Tell your child it's going to be a fun experience. She'll get to sit in a really neat chair and maybe even get a prize!"

First dental visits are beneficial for the parents too as the dentist can be a source of teething tips and tricks and other important information. "The dentist can answer your questions about when to use fluoride toothpaste, how to get a child to brush his teeth thoroughly and assess your child's risk of cavities," DeLucia says.

Lisa DeLucia, DDS, approved this article.




Interview with Lisa DeLucia, DDS diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry, Eastman Institute for Oral Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center

American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

American Dental Association