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Babies are tiny humans. Their main job in early life is to eat, sleep, and poop. While the latter two of these activities may come pretty naturally, the feeding part may be interrupted for a variety of reasons.

Cup feeding — providing milk to your baby with a small medicine cup or similar device — is a temporary alternative to breast or bottle feeding.

Cup feeding is a method that may be used as a temporary feeding option when:

  • Babies are born prematurely and are not yet able to nurse.
  • Babies are temporarily unable to breastfeed due to separation from mother.
  • Babies are ill or have certain medical conditions.
  • Babies are refusing the breast.
  • Mothers must take a break from breastfeeding for some reason.
  • Mothers must supplement feeding and want to avoid using bottles or causing “nipple confusion.”

While the idea of feeding your baby using a cup may sound tedious or daunting, it’s actually a simple option that is used, according to the World Health Organization, in developing countries where items for feeding are less readily available. Cup feeding requires very few pieces of equipment — items that can be more easily cleaned and sterilized than bottles.

Here’s more about how cup feeding might benefit your baby, challenges you might encounter, and some practical instructions to get you started.

Related: I never understood the pressure to breastfeed

Babies need breast milk or formula for their bodies and brains to grow. If your baby won’t or cannot take the breast or bottle for some reason, cup feeding is a solid alternative.

Other benefits of cup feeding:

  • It’s appropriate for the youngest babies. In lower-resource countries cup feeding is often used with babies born prematurely, as early as 29 weeks gestation. This method may also helpful for babies who have low birth weight or have certain medical issues, like a cleft palate.
  • It may work for babies who are temporarily unable or unwilling to take the breast or bottles for some other reason (e.g. issues with sucking, nursing strike, mastitis).
  • It allows for paced feeding. In fact, you should let your baby feed at their own speed throughout the process and not pour the milk down their throat.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other methods. All you need is a plastic medicine cup, or something similar, and your milk or formula. The rest is about learning technique and patience.
  • It’s easy to learn. The process itself is relatively intuitive and both baby and caregiver can get into a good rhythm with enough practice.

Related: The best and worst natural supplements for your milk supply

As you can imagine, the first few times you attempt to cup feed your baby, you may lose some milk. While this is a disadvantage to this style of feeding, you’ll likely develop better technique with time. That said, losing milk in the process can also make it hard to track how much your baby is getting.

Another concern with this method is that cup feeding takes sucking out of the equation. Instead, babies sip or lap up the milk. If your baby has issues with sucking, ask your doctor or lactation consultant for suggestions on other ways to support and develop this important skill.

Last, there is a chance your baby may aspirate the milk while cup feeding. Symptoms of aspiration include things like choking or coughing, rapid breathing during feeds, wheezing or issues with breathing, and slight fever. Contact your baby’s pediatrician if you have any concerns. Untreated, aspiration may lead to dehydration, weight loss, or nutritional deficiencies, among other complications.

Making sure that you’re using the correct method during all cup feedings can help to avoid aspiration.

Related: 13 best baby formulas

The first few times you cup feed your baby, consider asking an expert for help. Again, this may be your child’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant. You might also watch this video for tips.

Once you learn the basics you should get the hang of this method with a little practice.

Step 1: Gather your supplies

To feed your baby using a cup, you can use a basic medicine cup or even a shot glass — both may have the measurements printed on them. Other options include a Foley cup (a cup developed specifically for feeding infants that has a channel that works similarly to a straw) or a paladai (a feeding vessel traditionally used in India that has a reservoir for the milk and a cone-like tip that reaches baby’s mouth).

Other supplies:

  • Warm breast milk or formula. Don’t use a microwave to warm the milk. Instead, place a bottle or ziplock baggie of it in a bowl of warm water.
  • Burp cloths, washcloths, or bibs to catch any spills, drips, and spit-up.
  • Swaddle blankets to help secure baby’s arms so they don’t interfere with feeding.

Step 2: Hold your baby

Before feeding, make sure your baby is awake and alert, but also calm. You’ll want to hold your little one in an upright position so they don’t choke on the milk as they drink. If they’re fidgeting or moving their hands in the way, consider swaddling or wrapping their arms in a blanket, but not too tightly.

You may also place the burp cloth or washcloth under your baby’s chin before beginning.

Step 3: Feed your baby

Now that you’re set up for success, the best way to describe how your baby will drink from a cup is that they’ll “slurp” or sip the milk. Resist pouring the milk into their mouth, which may cause them to choke.

Some tips:

  • Try to stimulate your baby’s rooting reflex before feeding. This is the same reflex they have when feeding at the breast or bottle. Simply tap their lower lip with the edge of the cup. This should help signal to them that it’s feeding time.
  • You may further stimulate this reflex by touching the edges of the cup to their upper lip, grazing the bottom lip as well. You’ll want to make sure your baby’s tongue can move easily at the cup’s lower edge.
  • Gently tip the cup to allow the milk to flow closer to the cup’s edge. You’ll want to stay in this position even if your baby isn’t actively drinking. This way, they’ll more easily return to their sipping after short breaks.
  • Allow your baby to use their tongue to lap the milk from the cup.
  • Stop feeding occasionally to burp your baby (after about every half ounce consumed). Then continue this process as needed.

Note: How much milk you’ll feed your baby depends on their age, weight, and other factors. In other words: It is up to you and your doctor to discuss specifics.

Step 4: Pay close attention

Watch your baby closely for cues that they’re done eating. In general, cup feeding shouldn’t last longer than 30 minutes total. (Fun fact: This is around the same length of time babies spend at the breast, 10-15 minutes on each side.)

How often you cup feed throughout the day will depend on your reason for doing it in the first place. If it’s to supplement, you may only need to do it a few times a day. If it’s your baby’s sole source of nutrition, you’ll need to work closely with their doctor to determine an appropriate schedule.

Related: “Breast is best”: Here’s why it mantra can be harmful

Cup feeding may feel slow and unnatural at first, but your baby should get more efficient with time. While this method may be new to you and perhaps feel unusual, rest assured that cultures across the world appear to have been cup feeding infants for hundreds to thousands of years. It’s just another way to get your baby the nutrients they need to grow and develop.

It’s always a good idea to consult with your child’s pediatrician or even a certified lactation consultant if you have questions or concerns about feeding practices. A specialist can help diagnose issues with feeding or illnesses, provide tips on technique, and give you the support you need in real time.