Here is my parent-who-loves-interesting-gear secret: all the interesting stuff comes from the special needs community. Want to learn how to toilet train? Ask the people teaching kids with autism how to use the toilet. Want to know where you take your crawler to the park? Ask the kids using wheelchairs where the parks with rubberized surfaces are. And want to know the best cup for your baby learning to drink? Ask the occupational therapists working with people who have difficulties drinking.
Then when it turns out your kid also has difficulty drinking, you’re set!
My kid — who I will refer to as the Tiny Penguin — is what I call a remedial drinker. I have called him this since he was a newborn and had to eat from an ultra preemie nipple lying on his side. It turns out he had a legitimate reason for being so bad at drinking, although we haven’t figured out what it actually is, because now we know that he was aspirating all the goddamned time.
Anyway, now I know a lot about cups. (And bottles, but that’s a different post.) And being that I love to share my opinions, I am going to share my opinions about cups.
Broadly there are a few kinds of cups:
- Straw cups — with subsets of standard straws and weighted straws, and the holy grail of water bottles
- Open cups — with subsets of rim-drinking cups, and pseudo-open cups
- Spout cups — with subsets of hard and soft spouts
Most people, when they’re thinking about introducing cups to their infant, think of spout cups, but there’s no particular reason the spout cup has to be your baby’s first cup, it’s just the closest-looking to a nipple. From my perspective, they’ve already got a nipple, and this is a new skill, so why not try a new kind of cup?
In general you’re going to be evaluating cups by different heuristics depending on your child’s phase of life.
- Learning to drink from a cup — a learner generally needs an easier cup. Easier to drink also means easier to spill, dump, and otherwise make a mess.
- A competent drinker but generally incompetent being, i.e., a toddler, who would be delighted to make a mess if given half an opportunity — these cups should be a little more difficult to use and a little more difficult to misuse.
- A kid with swallowing difficulties who needs their fluids or their delivery modified, and may also be a toddler.
Leakproof is thus modified by the above. But! Ease of cleaning is never modified by anything. Remember the story about the valves growing mold? That is real. Save every little bottle and nipple brush you come across. Invest in an industrial dispenser of soap. Get really hot water. Do not. Do not. Do not let cups go. Don’t let them walk around or hang out under sofas. Don’t let them lie on their sides. Don’t let them sneak off under the seat in the car. Especially. Especially. Especially if they have milk in them.
Straw drinking is fairly easy to teach. Take a straight (restaurant style) straw, put it in breastmilk, formula, or even water (if baby is over 6 months or already eating a decent amount of solids under 6 months), and put your finger over the end. Take it out of the fluid, put it horizontally in front of the baby or in the baby’s mouth, and wait for him to do something. Let some fluid go. If he sucks, reward him with fluid. If he stops, put your finger back over the straw. He’ll start to understand that sucking brings milk. Sucking from a straw is actually different than the suck required to nurse or bottle feed (or should be, at least – babies who treat a nipple like a straw are generally compensating for some kind of oral restriction).
The problem with straw cups is that babies want to pick up the cup and treat it like a bottle. Then when no fluid comes out, because they’ve tipped the cup up, they are mad! Enter the WEIGHTED STRAW CUP. There are a few brands but I stumbled first on the Munchkin Flexi Straw cup (at the drugstore of all places) and I think it’s the cheapest of all the weighted straws. The weighted straw cups have a soft flexible internal straw with a weight at the end, and a curved cup, so at whatever angle the baby puts the cup, the end of the straw is always down, and always in fluid. No more yelling at baby about air fluid levels!
For my remedial drinker, the Munchkin Flexi Straw was great because it was fairly narrow aperture, which slowed him down and minimized the amount of fluid he was getting in his mouth at once. Unfortunately for those of you in thickener land, because it is narrow it doesn’t allow even nectar thick fluid through the straw.
The Zoli Baby Bot cup is another weighted straw cup, but it’s significantly more expensive, and I don’t have experience with it. Lots of people love it though.
Once baby can drink from a straw cup, if he’s having swallowing difficulties, using a regular straw cup can be helpful because it keeps the jaw and chin neutral or tucked down, not tipped back. Chin down can be protective for swallowing.
Our other go-to straw (not weighted) was the Nuby Clik It Flex Straw (not to be confused with flexi straw). They have straw and soft spout version. These are pretty easy to clean, virtually leakproof, and good general go-to cups. If you need to mix thickener in the cup, you can’t make much at once because 10 oz is right at the top, leaving no headroom for shaking. The Tiny Penguin was able to drink nectar thick water through this straw, but not honey thick.
Leak verdict: these are pretty leak resistant if you get the threading/clicking right, even when thrown.
At a certain point, all those babies toting around sippy cups start to look more like tiny hikers toting around water bottles. Pretty much everyone loves the Camelbak Eddy, and I am here to tell you they are all wrong.
Because the Eddy is impossible to clean. It has a bite nozzle (which might be difficult to master anyway), and because biting works by deforming a hollow mouthpiece, it has a hollow mouthpiece. A hollow space that is not accessible from the outside. Also, do you know what else kids do to bite valves? They bite them. That is why there are multipacks of replacement bite valves for sale on Amazon.
You know what looks basically the same, costs half as much, and does not have a hollow mouthpiece?
The Contigo Autospout mouthpiece is solid, except for the actual straw hole. It’s easy to clean with a standard nipple brush (I use the one that came with the Dr Brown bottle cleaning brush, which, PS, I did not use with the Dr Brown bottles). The internal straw piece comes away easily and is not that bad to clean. The aperture is wide enough to allow honey thick fluids through.
For kids who need chilled fluids — or anyone who wants to keep their fluids chilled — there is an insulated 10 oz kids Contigo straw cup. For whatever reason it’s more expensive than the adult version (AUTOSPOUT Straw [color] Chill), which is significantly larger, so if your kid is strong enough to lug 20 oz of double wall vacuum insulated water bottle around (or you are lugging their stuff for them), you might just go right to the 20 oz.
The Autospouts are easy enough for a toddler to both open (by pushing the little button) and close (by pushing down the mouth piece), and the little flap automatically clicks over the mouth piece, somewhat reducing the likelihood of it being covered in sand, dirt, and wood chips.
A Note About Pressure Changes
The caveat to my love for straw cups is this: pressure changes will make a big mess.
Let’s say you’re going on a plane. Your kid drinks thickened fluids and so rather than try to mix all of that up on the plane, you mix it up beforehand. Because you are a white single dad with a mildly harried appearance traveling alone with a baby, you get through security with all this and onto the plane. Your cups are full of thickened water! And milk! Up goes the plane. “I’d like some milk,” your toddler politely requests. “Sure,” you say, and reach into your bag. As you pop open the autospout, the fluid AUTO SPOUTS ALL OVER THE GUY IN THE ROW IN FRONT OF YOU.
Yes, my friends, physics is messy. As the pressure increases with elevation gain, the gas expansion forces all of that delicious milk right up the straw and out onto your new friends. And yourself. And before you figured this out and you let your baby have his cup the whole flight in his car seat, all of his clothes and the car seat cover.
To a lesser extent this happens with hot cars as well.
I don’t have a great fix for this. I have tried periodically releasing pressure, filling more (to have less air), and disconnecting the internal straw portion. Disconnecting the straw probably works best but then you’re stuck fishing around in a cup of thickened milk looking for the straw to reconnect it. Not great. (Addendum: I figured it out! I don’t attach the straw at all until we’re in the air. I keep it in a separate bag. When we’re up in the air and he wants to drink, then I connect the straw. Problem solved!)
Tune in next time for my excessive reflections on open cups, while I basically ignore spout cups!