Cup Feeding Baby: What It Is, Benefits, Alternatives

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Cup feeding babies is considered a safe method to provide breastmilk or formula (1). This alternative feeding method is often useful to feed premature babies and babies facing issues while nursing.

Most mothers opt for cup feeding when they are unable to or unwilling to bottle-feed or breastfeed their infants. In many cases, this is a temporary method of feeding, and the babies are nursed from breast or bottle when they can feed. A certified lactation expert or pediatrician can guide you on the safety practices and correct ways of cup feeding.

Read on to learn the correct methods, pros and cons, and suitability of cup feeding babies.

When Is Cup-Feeding Suitable For Babies?

Exclusive breastfeeding should be the only mode of feeding for the first six months of life. However, cup-feeding can be a suitable alternative when (2):

  • A baby is born premature and is still unable to breastfeed.
  • An infant refuses to breastfeed or bottle-feed due to unknown reasons.
  • The baby is unable to breastfeed or bottle-feed due to certain medical conditions, such as the cleft palate or neurological
  • A baby is facing latching issues and hence is unable to latch on to the breast.
  • An infant needs to stay away from their mother for a short duration.
  • The baby needs supplemental feeding, and the mother wants to avoid using bottles to prevent nipple confusion.

Remember, cup-feeding is a temporary alternative. One must try to resume breastfeeding (relactation) as early as possible. Consult a pediatrician before starting cup-feeding to understand the pros and cons of the process better.

What Are The Advantages Of Cup-Feeding For Babies?

Cup-feeding is a safe method to ensure continuity of feeding breast milk or formula when the baby cannot breastfeed or bottle-feed. In such scenarios, cup-feeding may provide the following benefits (3).

  1. It is an alternative feeding method, which is relatively easy for the baby and the caregiver to understand and adapt.
  1. It is inexpensive compared to other feeding methods. You only need a feeding cup and expressed breast milk or formula to initiate feeding.
  1. It could be more hygienic than other feeding methods, such as finger feeding, where there could be a greater risk of contamination.
  1. One can initiate cup-feeding soon after birth. Research indicates that preterm infants born as early as the 29th week of gestation can be safely fed with a cup (4).
  1. In the absence of breastfeeding, cup-feeding could replace bottle-feeding to prevent nipple confusion in young babies.
  1. Feeding bottles with artificial teats or artificial nipples may cause misalignment of teeth. Cup-feeding could help avert this risk.
  1. Cup-feeding could be a non-invasive alternative to nasogastric tube-feeding in certain scenarios where the baby is unable to breastfeed and bottle-feed (5).
  1. Cup-fed infants may find it easier to switch to breastfeeding whenever the situation is amicable due to lack of any nipple confusion, which may occur with bottle-feeding.
  1. If baby is cup fed most of the time, finger feeding is recommended so that the baby learns to suck.

Are There Any Disadvantages Of Cup-Feeding For Babies?

Below are some of the likely disadvantages of cup-feeding a baby.

  1. Feeding through a cup may cause milk spillage, which might make it difficult to keep track of how much breast milk or formula your baby consumed.
  1. Cup-feeding usually takes more time and patience than bottle-feeding.
  1. Babies sip or lap the milk during cup-feeding, which might affect the baby’s sucking reflex in the long-term.
  1. Incorrect cup-feeding may increase the risk of choking and coughing. Cup-feeding hurriedly may also increase the chances of aspiration, where a substantial amount of breast milk or formula enters the lungs.

Cup-feeding done correctly and patiently could mitigate some of these disadvantages and help facilitate adequate feeding without any risks.

How To Cup-Feed A Baby?

Below are simple steps that you could follow to initiate cup-feeding for young infants (6) (7).

  1. Gather supplies: You would need a sterilized feeding cup, warm breast milk or formula milk, bibs, swaddle blankets, and tissues. Medicine cup, Foley cup, or paladai are different cup types you could use to cup-feed your baby as per the doctor’s guidance.
  1. Position the baby: Before beginning feeding, ensure the baby is alert, awake, and calm. Swaddle them in a swaddle cloth so that they may not knock off the cup. Place a bib or burp cloth under their chin to clear spillage. Make the baby sit in an upright position on your lap, support their back and neck so that they may not choke on the milk.
  1. Begin feeding: Fill the cup half-full with expressed breast milk or formula and place the cup’s rim gently on your baby’s lower lip to stimulate the baby’s rooting reflex. Tilt the cup slightly so that the milk touches the baby’s lip. Remember not to pour milk into the baby’s mouth.
  1. Conclude feeding: Wait for the baby to lap or drink, pause, and swallow milk at their own pace. Stop in between feeding to burp babies and let them continue as per hunger. Most babies cup-feed for no longer than 30 minutes. However, how much and how long a baby should cup-feed depends on the baby’s age, weight, and other factors, such as their hunger.

You may check out some cup-feeding demonstration videos to understand cup-feeding better. You may also take the guidance of a certified lactation consultant. Adequate practice can make cup-feeding as easy and comfortable as breastfeeding.

Are There Any Alternatives To Cup-Feeding?

Selecting an alternative to cup-feeding depends on the reason for alternative feeding. For instance, syringe feeding is an easy, short-term alternative most suitable for premature infants and babies incapable of breastfeeding. On the other hand, finger feeding is used if the baby is unable to latch or the mother has to discontinue feeding temporarily.

Finger feeding uses a syringe or feeding tube to deliver the milk, and the process may help stimulate the sucking reflex (2) (3). Haberman feeder and feeding devices, such as lact aid, nipple shield, and feeding tubes, are other alternative feeding methods that can be used after consulting a pediatrician or a certified lactation consultant.

Cup feeding is safe and can be used for newborns with latching problems, preterm babies, and even older babies for different reasons. Cup feeding a baby can be a more hygienic and safer alternative to other feeding techniques when they are unable to breastfeed. Therefore, you may consider cup feeding your baby after consulting your pediatrician to know about the right technique and prevent any unwanted outcomes. However, if your baby is unable to adjust to cup feeding, your pediatrician may help you choose other alternatives after determining the cause.

Key Pointers

  • Cup feeding is one of the safest alternative feeding methods suitable for babies who can’t breastfeed or bottlefeed.
  • Babies born full-term or premature can begin cup-feeding soon after birth if needed.
  • However, cup-feeding needs more time and patience and can affect a baby’s sucking reflex if followed for long.
  • Following the right steps to cup feed a baby is essential to avoid choking due to hurried feeding.

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Rebecca Koyf

Rebecca Koyf is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Registered Lactation Consultant (RLC),Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) and a LaLeche League volunteer. She has a Bachelor's degree in Accounting and worked as an Auditor for the NYC Comptroller’s Office for 8 years. Her own breastfeeding struggles made her change her career and pursue the field in lactation. She has her... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more