According to the Children's Health Network, children should be able to start weaning to cups around 9-18 months old. Sippy cups can be used to help that transition, however they were designed as a convenience to parents, not because they are necessary for children. There is even some argument that the sippy cup design can have a negative impact on a child's development when used in excess. The way a child drinks from a sippy cup imitates the suckling motion used with bottles, as opposed to the tongue positioning and coordination used for drinking from a true cup. Because of this, there is potential that overuse of sippy cups - and the consequential lack of practicing the adult swallow - can inhibit a child's natural developmental process. In speech, we occasionally see children who rest with their mouths open, have misaligned teeth, and have tongue positioning that may be associated with over use of sippy cups and/or binkies. From this perspective, it is ideal is for children to skip the sippy cup altogether.
That being said, I realize it isn't functional to bypass the sippy cup. I recently polled my colleagues at SmallTalk to see what their thoughts were on the subject. From a combination of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and mommys, the general consensus was this: work on cups at home, by placing a small amount of liquid into a cup while the child is seated (e.g., during meals). That way if there is a mistake, the mess will be manageable. Use a cup that is spill proof when you are out and about, but look into options that support development. Cups with straws, for example, offer a more adult way to drink than sippy cups. We also love these cups, which are a great compromise because they mimic regular cups while keeping spills to a minimum. I've recommended them to a couple of parents who have come back with glowing reviews. I've been told that similar cups are available at Toys"R"Us and Walmart.
Best of luck with your transition to cups - please share your experiences and any gems of advice that you have for us!
"There's no learning without trying lots of ideas and failing lots of times."