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Monday, August 13, 2012
How to Teach Your Baby (or Toddler) to Drink from a Straw
Any parent with a baby or toddler knows that there are a multitude of sippy cups available to choose from. It can be pretty overwhelming when you're standing in front of a selection of 30+ cups. To make it more confusing, parents have the choice between the traditional spout shaped sippy cup or a no spill straw cup. My vote, as a therapist, is the straw cup. In fact, this is one of the first recommondations I make to families I am working with to improve feeding skills and even give sensory input. I know, you didn't know the straw had so much power! To say this simply, straw drinking requires the use of different muscles and a more sophisticated motor plan, meaning it is a little more challenging. Using a spout shaped sippy cup is the same sucking motion a child uses to drink from a bottle, so it isn't progressing their skills much. You may be saying, "So what? What difference does it make?" Well, those straw drinking muscles they are using are the same muscles they need to manipulate food in their mouth better and say more speech sounds. Sure, a kid will still eventually get these skills, but by introducing a straw you are laying a stronger foundation and they may master these skills sooner! In addition, straw drinking gives a lot of sensory feedback, the force it requires to suck can be very calming and organizing. Sounds great, right? By now you are ready to run to the store and stock up! Before you hop in the car or click over to Amazon, there are a few things to consider first, like what kind of straw to use, what age you should introduce it, and how to actually teach a baby to drink from one (most of them need some help to get going).
Let's talk about age first. Most babies are capable of being taught to drink from a straw at 9 months. Typically toddlers will figure it out by age 2 on their own. I was able to teach my older son at 8 months and my younger son taught himself at 5 months! That was crazy, and I'm not trying to brag, he just kept watching his big brother do it and put it together on his own. I was pretty amazed when he reached for it one day and just took a drink like it was old hat. Although, that is pretty uncommon, potentially it is possible.
One important word of caution, straw drinking can cause babies or toddlers to swallow quickly if they are sucking fast, which may make them cough and choke on the liquid. Swallowing is a very coordinated action that most of us take for granted, when something "goes down the wrong pipe", liquid may actually enter our lungs and we begin coughing to get it out. It is okay if this happens occasionally, but if it happens often (and it could with babies) then you may need to lay off the straw for a little while or try putting thicker liquids into the cup (milk, milkshakes, or even applesauce) until they get the hang of it. Otherwise, they could end up with pnemonia. Also, make sure they are seated, it can get difficult for a toddler to manage walking and swallowing. If your child is greater than 15 months and still coughing frequently while using a straw, mention it to their doc.
Alright, so let's get into the meat of this post... How to actually teach your child to drink from a straw. First, of all try and stick a regular straw in their mouth, it is important that it is just a good old fashioned straw, because the no spill straw cups require you to suck really really hard. A baby may try to suck and when they don't get anything instantly just give up. Who knows, they may take to it right away, without any help from you. More likely they will just hold their mouth open or put their mouth on it but won't suck. In this case I would try to:
1. Take the regular straw and stick it into a cup of water, so it is touching the bottom, and put your finger over the opening at the top. Keep your finger over the opening at the top so you are holding the liquid in the straw as you pull the straw out of the water, as I am doing in the picture above.
2. With your baby sitting firmly in a chair, hold the straw up over their open mouth and release the liquid so it falls into their mouth, being careful not to allow too much water to go in at a time.
3. Repeat this a few times, if your baby seems interested. If they aren't up for participating, then try again on a different day. Hopefully your baby will start to close their mouth around the straw. If they aren't then stroke the sides of their cheeks and demonstrate so they can imiate you!
4. Once they are closing their mouth around the straw, keep your finger over the other end of the straw so they have to suck to get the liquid out. Keep putting more and more water into the straw so they are sucking more and more through the straw.
5. Now try putting the straw directly into the cup and letting them take a drink. Some will have figured it out at this point and won't need any more help. If they go back to holding their mouth open then start over and this time when they start to suck the water out of the straw flip the straw down into the open cup of water. This is a little tricky, you have to be fast. The idea is that you don't break the sucking action and hopefully they start to make the connection that when they suck they get a drink!
It may take several "practice sessions" before your babe masters this skill. If this approach isn't working, I do have one more trick! You will need to get yourself a set of the Munchkin Take and Toss Straw Cup, they usually come in a four pack and are super cheap. For some reason, when the lids are placed on these cups it creates a vacuum. Put the straw in the cup, with the lid tightly on and put the straw up to your kid's mouth and squeeze the cup. The water will actually shoot right into their mouth! Do this gently, again, you don't want them to get too much. Encourage the stroking on the face if they don't close their mouth and of course, demonstrate! Therapy supply companies actually sell and market cups designed to help your child drink from a straw, if you are interested in those, click here.
Once they have mastered drinking from a regular straw, then it is probably a good idea to move to a no spill straw cup. Besides your own sanity, they have to suck harder to get the liquid out, which will decrease choking and coughing. As I mentioned earlier, there are a ton of cups to choose from. I don't have any brand that I particularly love, and if they fall the right way, they all leak a little (so much for no-spill). Also, they are a total pain to disassemble and reassemble. In my house we have one water cup a day and one milk cup a day that I keep in the fridge between meals. I do this just to minimize how often I have put these things together. I hope I'm not swaying you away from the straw though, they are worth it!
So when I am choosing a cup I look for three things:
1. Is it a skinny straw? Some have really wide straws which give too much liquid and don't work the muscles as well.
2. Is it insulated? I prefer these for milk, but buy plastic ones for water. Although, it's your preference.
3. Can I flip the straw inside? This helps minimize germs while traveling.
I have tried and like Munchkin and Playtex varieties well enough, skinny straws are the most important feature. Most of these need replaced after 6-12 months though because the plastic straws start to wear down and tear.
Keep in mind straw drinking requires a lot of muscle control and coordination. If you are trying this with a child with low muscle tone, it will be much more challenging, and will probably take multiple attempts before they learn how to do it.
I would love to hear how it goes with your little babe, let me know! I have several other posts geared towards this age group. If you are interested, check out: Mega List of First Table Foods, Why You Should Let Your Baby Get Messy, and Grate It.