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The Competent Parent: Bottles for Toddlers?


Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Bottles for Toddlers?

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m a professional child care provider for toddlers.  In my group there is an eighteen-month-old who still uses a bottle at home.  At the center, we expect toddlers to use two-handled cups and we only use bottles in the infant class.  On several occasions since he transitioned to the toddler room, the Mom will send his bottle with him saying, “I know he will want his bottle today.”

It feels like she’s trying to keep him a baby.

We Use Cups


Dear We Use Cups,

Rushing children to grow up should not be the basis for a no-bottle policy, although there are good reasons for using cups with your toddlers.   If you polled all the mothers in the world, or even in one community, you would find there is no “standard” age for weaning, and some children do better with a more gradual approach to move from bottle or breast to exclusive cup drinking.  Will carrying his bottle through to his preschool years hinder his development?  Probably not.   By the time he is four, his peers will let him know that anything associated with babies is taboo – diapers, pacifiers, blankies, teddies, bottles, and clinging to Mommy – at least in front of your friends.  Breastfeeding advocates cite increased emotional security for children who are still nursing at three, four, five, and older.  Likewise bottles are convenient for independent drinking and reduced spills, and can become the security object that instantly calms a stressed toddler or preschooler.   As a group child care center, many of your practices are based on what is best for most of your children, and individual differences have to be carefully considered as to how they may affect the others in the group.

So what do the experts say?

The issue for dentists is that going to sleep with a bottle of milk or juice can cause cavities even on un-erupted teeth.  Drinking from a cup takes less time than bottle drinking.  The less time the drink is in the mouth, the better.  Sugar that stays in the mouth after drinking forms plaque on teeth.  Mouth bacteria then eat the plaque, and with a little more time, eat the tooth enamel.  This can be prevented by brushing or wiping the child’s teeth and gums and using only water in the bottle when putting him to sleep after the first tooth appears .   A dentist can give further advice regarding fluoride for a baby especially if “soft” teeth run in the family.  Also, constant sucking on a bottle, pacifier, or thumb can affect proper alignment of the teeth.  Again, professional intervention can save his permanent smile.

Speech pathologists are concerned with tongue control.  Nursing at the breast or bottle requires strong tongue action which is helpful for speech.   Switching to a straw or open cup develops different mouth movements that are also important for proper speech.  Using a “sippy cup” is a good transition since it is sucked like a bottle but can be held like a cup.  Prolonged use of a bottle will not interfere with speech as long as he is drinking from an open cup for most of each day.  A speech pathologist can offer specific exercises to correct pronunciation difficulties if they occur.

Psychologically speaking, a bottle can represent the security of infancy and/or the independence of drinking by himself.   I presume Mommy is working full-time.   She and her son may use bottle feeding at home to reconnect with each other during their precious hours together.  She may sense that he needs more holding time while she is away from him all day, hence she wants you to bottle feed him, too.  Contrarily, bottle feeding may be used at home for independent drinking.  At home, he may hold his bottle contentedly by himself while she attends to other things.  Further, a toddler who walks around with his bottle associates it with the exhilaration of independence and will be reluctant to give up his “power pack” for a cup at the table.  The bottle is his tool for self-sufficiency.

I suggest you talk with Mom about her son’s use of the bottle.  It is important that the two of you understand, if not agree, about what the other is doing.  She is trying to mother him and you are trying to provide quality professional care.  You each have a perspective on his development that will benefit the other.  Your center has policies that reflect the standards of group child care for toddlers based on age-appropriate needs as well as reasonable accommodations for individual differences.  She has a mother’s passion and long-range vision for doing the best she can as part of a relationship that will endure the rest of her life.  Maybe some compromise is in order.  At eighteen-months, it’s a little early to be concerned that she’s “keeping him a baby.”

For a range of comments from mothers of toddlers about their use of bottles, you can visit:


Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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