WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
Jan. 3, 2008 -- Taking sips and tastes of alcohol at an early age is common,
according to a new study that polled the early alcohol experiences of 452
children at ages 8 and 10.
Overall, 39% of the children had sipped or tasted alcohol while just 6% had
had a full drink. Among the 8-year-olds, 35% had tasted or sipped, while 48% of
the 10-year-olds had.
"Sipping and tasting of alcohol by young kids is more common than
thought," says John E. Donovan, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and
epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the study.
In the study, Donovan also looked at whether the kids who sipped and tasted
were more likely to engage in problem behavior. "The ones who have sipped
are no more likely to have engaged in shoplifting, damaging public property,
writing on public property, or other delinquent behaviors than the ones who
have not," he says.
But that's not carte blanche to let your kids nip at your cocktails, he
adds. It's too soon to know, he says, if early sips and tastes will lead to
drinking and delinquency problems later. He will follow the sample of children,
now ages 15 and 17, to see how the sippers and tasters fare.
(Did you get your first
taste of alcohol at home? Do you think it caused you to drink earlier or
more in life? Join the discussion on the Health Cafe message board.)
Experts have known for years that early drinking -- more than sips and
tastes -- can spell problems later, Donovan tells WebMD. "There is growing
literature that says the younger the age at which they start, the more likely
they are to be at risk for abuse and dependence of problem drinking in
But that evidence has to do with children who drink full drinks. Looking at
children who take sips and tastes -- sometimes from their parents or sometimes
on the sly, such as at family celebrations -- has not been researched much,
He polled the 452 children -- 210 8-year-olds and 242 10-year-olds -- and
their parents, asking about drinking, sipping, and tasting experiences. The
interviews with the children were conducted every six months and annually with
the parents over three years. The study is in the January issue of
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
"A fairly large proportion of children have some personal experience
with alcohol by age 8 or 10," Donovan says. "So we really shouldn't be
talking about adolescence as a time when experimenting with alcohol
Most of the early sipping and tasting, he found, occurred at home or family
celebrations or at religious services. "Sipping and tasting is done in the
home, not [typically] done with peers, is more likely to happen if parents are
drinkers themselves," he says. "And it's not due to parents actually
giving the children a drink, necessarily. A lot of times the kids grab the
drink that was there or they found the bottle around the house."
Among the other findings:
Parents weren't always aware of their children's experimenting. "When we
asked parents if they knew if their child had sipped or tasted, a third of the
moms didn't know and half of the dads didn't know," Donovan says.
The study results are no surprise to Robert A. Zucker, PhD, director of the
Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann
Arbor, who was the review editor for the paper.
"At first glance, the numbers may be a surprise to those who have not
reflected on it," he says. But the findings, including the fact that most
of the sips and tastes are done at home, make sense if you take a step back, he
The data on sipping and tasting are a valuable addition to what experts know
about early alcohol use, Zucker tells WebMD. Early drinkers -- those who do
more than sip and taste before age 14 -- are four times as likely to become
alcoholics, he says.
Now, researchers can investigate what effect sipping and tasting in
childhood may have on later alcohol problems.
So should you let your kid sip or not?
"I would suggest not," Donovan tells WebMD. "I don't know enough
at the moment to say it's definitely not a problem."
Says Zucker: "I think that's a reasonable bit of advice, but I'm
skeptical it will be followed." Still, he says: "It's a good idea to
SOURCES: John E. Donovan, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and
epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Graduate School
of Public Health. Robert A. Zucker, PhD, director of the Addiction Research
Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Donovan, J. Alcoholism: Clinical
andExperimental Research, January 2008, vol 32: pp 1-12.
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