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Occupational Therapy Self Help Skills Sensory Integration

Teaching my child to drink from a Straw

8 tips from an Occupational Therapist

Your child’s ability to eat, chew, swallow food, drink from a straw, lick an ice-cream or blow out his birthday cake candles are all considered oral motor skills. These start to develop in the womb and are matured early in childhood at around the age of 4. Throughout this time your child’s neurological system will be busy learning how to develop muscle strength and coordination in preparation for eating, drinking and speaking.

Your child is not born with the knowledge of chewing, blowing or licking and these skills are learnt through the experiences that he is offered during childhood. This learning curve is supported by many other skills and milestones such as the integration of primitive reflexes, adequate postural skills, muscle coordination and bilateral use of hands and tongue. Should all of these processes work in sync, you will expect that your child attempts drinking from a straw at around 1 year of age.

When your child learns to drink from a straw he develops an important internal suck/swallow/breath mechanism. This mechanism is an important aspect for the refinement other feeding and speech skills.

Here are some tips to help you teach your child to drink from a straw:

Have the necessary equipment and set

Before starting the training make sure to have all the necessary equipment. This will allow you to present the right equipment as per your child’s needs and make the task more successful.

Preferably start with a thin and short straws as this will help liquid to reach the mouth faster and with less effort.  

In addition to the straw width it is also important to consider the type of cup to be used. There are cups or bottles which can be bought off the shelf that will make this learning process easier. The use of soft cups and bottles  can facilitate the beverage to flow in the straw by gently pressing onto the cup or the bottle. If you are going to use these cups be very careful when pressing the beverage into your child’s mouth and make sure liquid is reaching the mouth in a slow motion. There are also other bottles such as the Bear Bottle Kit ™ or the CIP-KUP ™ by Ark therapies. These have a special valve that keeps the beverage at the top of the straw so the child does not need to put a lot of effort to sip up the drink.  

Avoid using sippy cups

Ideally when you decide to transition from the baby bottle you consider going to a straw instead of a sippy cup. The use of a sippy cup will  promote the same sucking action as the baby bottle. This will decrease the development of other motor patterns required to drink from a straw and a cup.

Use their favourite beverage for learning.

Using your child favourite beverage will provide a sense of familiarity and motivate them to try this new piece of equipment.

Dip and tip method.

This method will help your child understand that the straw contains the beverage. It can be very frustrating for a thirsty kiddo to figure out how to use a straw when he doesn’t have the know how. To try out this method you need to dip a straw into your child’s favourite beverage, then place your finger tip on the end of the straw and lift out of the cup. With your finger still on the end, put the end of the straw into your child’s mouth. Ideally you put the straw on the tongue tip and then prompt your child to take a sip. Release the straw so the liquid flows into your child’s mouth. 

Make sure to give short sips.

Whether you are using the dip and tip method or any other method it is very important to give your child short sips. You also need to give your child time to swallow and adjust to the new sensation. Remember they are still in the LEARNING phase. It is also important to keep in mind that straw drinking can cause children to swallow quickly which may make them cough and choke on the beverage. 

Prevent the straw from going far in the mouth.

The straw should be positioned in a way so the beverage reaches the front of the mouth. Ideally only the tip of the straw is in the mouth.  Your child is still learning the coordinated suck/swallow/breath action so this is very important to avoid aspiration.

Test the length of straw that is in you child’s mouth by doing the following; While the straw is in your child’s mouth, pinch the straw at the lips. Remove the straw from the mouth, and note how much of the straw was inside the mouth.

Supervise all the time.

Keep in mind that your child is still learning to adjust to coordinate the suck/swallow/breath mechanism. So it is important to provide constant supervision during feeding and drinking tasks. 

Teach your child to close their lips around the straw

This should be done once your child feels the liquid flowing in their mouth. You can use a Lip Blok ®  to promote better lip closure. This will also help with proper positioning of the tongue and prevent the straw from going too far into the mouth. If your child is good at imitating facial expressions you can model the action. Make sure to use exaggerated and slow facial expressions.

A word of Advice….

If your child experiences challenges with learning this task or any other mouth actions you will need to consider an assessment by an Occupational Therapist and Speech and Language Pathologist. Your child might need a professional more in-depth assessment of his oral motor milestones, postural skills, reflex integration.

At WonderKids paediatric centre Malta we can help you out.