As a Registered dental hygienist and myofunctional therapist, I work on dozens of children each week and see the ill effects of the overuse of sippy cups, bottles, and pacifiers, which is why I wanted to write this article.
What many parents and caregivers don’t realize is that the extended use of these items are causing crooked teeth (malocclusions), dental decay, and severe muscle imbalances in their children. Our tongue posture growing up directly affects the outcome of our teeth later on in life.
Let me explain why.
“The goal should be to teach your child how to swallow and drink correctly, not to maintain clean floors.”
Babies are born with a sucking reflex that allows them to breastfeed. This reflex involves moving their tongues in and out to express milk from the breast. By the age of two, this infantile swallow pattern should be replaced with a mature swallow pattern that uses the tongue in a very different way.
When to use a sippy cup
Sippy cups are meant to be used very short term (one month) as a transitional aide from breast to cup. Unfortunately, sippy cups have become the long-term norm for many children these days, as parents and caregivers view them as a non-messy alternative to drinking from an open cup.
Children should begin transitioning away from a sippy cup around the age of 6 months. This is the time they start to develop the proper muscle functions of the tongue, lips and throat and develop their mature swallow. This mature swallow will help to reduce the likelihood of crooked teeth and expensive braces.
The goal should be to teach your child how to swallow and drink correctly, not to maintain clean floors. A little bit of spilled water isn’t the end of the world — life is messy, but we can deal with it to reap the benefits for our children.
Why are sippy cups detrimental?
The sippy cup teaches incorrect tongue placement. The reason is the spout — it contributes to the malformation of the hard palate, leading to malocclusions and crooked teeth. Prolonged usage of a sippy cup past 12 months slows down your child’s ability to develop proper drinking, swallowing, and articulation skills.
In the way of the tongue
Imagine drinking from a sippy cup. In order to do this, your tongue is forced to drop underneath the spout and into the floor of the mouth (to get the spout to fit). This is the wrong way to swallow. With a correct swallow, your tongue should rise to the roof of your mouth and behind your teeth to propel the liquid down. But in the case of the sippy cup, your children’s tongues simply cannot do this in their small mouths — there’s a big spout in the way!
Since the spout keeps the tongue in the floor of the mouth, it encourages children to drink using ALL of the wrong muscles — muscles that are a major factor in causing crooked teeth and poor facial and dental development of the lips, tongue, jaw etc.
The low tongue level problem
Ultimately, sippy cups can contribute to what therapists call a “low tongue level”, a condition where your child’s tongue rests on the floor of his or her mouth — instead of in the correct position: lightly suctioned to the roof of the mouth with the tongue tip resting just behind the front teeth.
WHY IS A LOW TONGUE LEVEL SUCH A BIG DEAL?
There are several reasons tongue positioning is critical, but in terms of a child’s jaw growth, it’s all about creating space.
According to Cynthia Peterson, Author of The TMJ Healing Plan: Ten Steps to Relieving Persistent Jaw, Neck and Head Pain (Positive Options for Health), the tongue should be lightly suctioned to the roof of the mouth at all times. It is the garage for our tongue and is super important in forming a wide upper arch and nasal/sinus cavities. The roof of our mouth is the floor of our sinuses. We want and need space in this area and one of the tongue’s jobs is to do just that — create upper space.
Having an incorrect tongue rest position from sippy cups or other factors can and often does lead to mouth breathing, high narrow palates, a tongue thrust, clenching and grinding, crowded and crooked teeth, overbites and underbites, speech disorders, respiratory problems, and the inability to properly chew and swallow.
When I work on a child with crooked teeth, more often than not, they present several of the above issues – not just one. Parents might only notice teeth that can be “fixed” with orthodontics, but I notice difficult breathing and higher rates of children with allergies and asthma.
This is all connected, and much of it has to do with improper development of the sinus cavity. And unfortunately, that is often connected with the over-reliance on devices such as sippy cups.
When should open cup drinking begin?
According to Diane Bahr, author of Nobody Ever Told Me (or my Mother) That!: Everything from Bottles and Breathing to Healthy Speech Development open cup drinking should begin around 5-6 months of age. This is when your child’s lip and tongue movements are becoming more independent from their jaw movements and jaw stabilization begins.
Open cup drinking helps to promote proper tongue placement and oral motor skills. These are necessary progressive learning steps for your child. The earlier you introduce these skills, the less chance your child will have for crooked, misaligned teeth.
Babies are quick learners and it only takes a few days to weeks of daily practice for them to develop a new habit. However it can take months of future therapy and years of braces to undo the damage of incorrect tongue placement, due in part from the overuse of tools such as sippy cups.
Jill is a Myofunctional Therapist in Austin, TX, who treats both children and adults with dysfunctional muscle patterns of the face, lips, and tongue. She treats issues ranging from thumbsucking to tongue-thrusting to those with asthma.
Myofunctional therapy is frequently used alongside orthodontics in order to ensure lasting results.
- Peterson, C; The TMJ Healing Plan: Ten Steps to Relieving Persistent Jaw, Neck and Head Pain (Positive Options for Health); Hunter House; May 2010
- Bahr, D; Nobody Ever Told Me (or my Mother) That!: Everything from Bottles and Breathing to Healthy Speech Development; Sensory World; April 2015