A young child's sipping or tasting alcohol may not be an early signal that they will have drinking problems or behavior problems later. Rather, sipping may reflect their parents' attitudes toward children drinking alcohol, according to a new study.
Researchers surveyed 452 children, ages 8 or 10, along with their families, to examine the factors linked to childhood sipping.
They found that 94 children in the study sipped or tasted alcohol between the start of the study and the time they turned 12. However, the researchers didn't find a link between this sipping and children's personality and behavior. [7 New Tips for Today's Parents]
"Children who started sipping before age 12 did not differ from children who did not," in terms of factors that predict their risk of problem drinking, marijuana and other drug use, delinquent behavior and risky sexual behavior during their teen years, study co-author John Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry the University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement.
"This finding suggests that sipping during childhood is not itself a problem behavior like delinquent behavior or drug use," Donovan said.
Instead, whether or not children sipped alcohol was related to their parents' approval of child sipping and the parents' own drinking, according to the study published Tuesday (Aug. 26) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
"Children who sipped alcohol before age 12 reported that their parents were more approving of child sipping or tasting alcohol, and more likely to be current drinkers than did children who did not have a first sip of alcohol before age 12. Their parents reported the same things," Donovan said.
The findings show the influence of the family alcohol environment on children's first involvement with alcohol, the researchers said.
Is it OK for children to sip alcohol?
Unlike drinking, sipping may be common among children — up to 66 percent of children may sip alcohol before age 12, according to a previous study by the researchers. But is this concerning?
Previous research has found that children who have sipped alcohol by age 10 are more likely to start drinking early, and tend to have more than a sip or a taste before they turn 15, Donovan said. This early drinking has been linked to problems in adolescence and young adulthood, such as binge drinking, alcohol dependence and drug use in previous studies.
However, the evidence shows associations, but not a cause-and-effect relationship between sipping alcohol and going on to have more real drinks later and engaging in other problematic behaviors. Many other factors could be involved, the researchers said.
"So, logically, childhood sipping may relate to these later problems as well, but it may not be the case that sipping in childhood has any negative outcomes. We just don't know yet," Donovan said.
More research is needed to know whether supervised sipping in childhood could contribute to healthy drinking habits later in life, or it would lead to problem drinking, the researchers said.