New Study Suggests Letting Your Child Sip Alcohol Does Not Predict But Increases Risk of Alcohol-Related Problems As A Young Adult

A couple of weeks ago, my almost 2-year-old toddler pointed to a wine bottle and said “wine!”, and then pointed to a bottle of beer and said “beer!”. While I did not let him sample any of it, it got me thinking about introducing alcohol to children at a young age (not as young as my son, of course), and how many parents believe allowing children to sip and taste alcohol early on will help promote responsible drinking and reduce alcohol-related problems later on.  With the holidays rapidly approaching, I

Photo courtesy Flickr user sophie & cie

imagine a lot of families might be allowing that first sip of Champagne when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s.

Despite these beliefs by parents, studies on the effects and/or consequences of early alcohol exposure are relatively limited.  You may recall almost a year ago a study published in the journal Psychological Medicine, found that kids who were allowed to sip alcohol were more likely to drink as teens, though less likely to binge drink as their peers who were not allowed to sip. Discussions could go either way with these results—yes, sipping led to increased drinking as teens, BUT they were less likely to binge drink, thus supporting the parents’ argument that they were taught a more responsible drinking approach.

A year later, a new study has been published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, aimed to examine the associations between early sipping with the frequency and quantity of alcohol use in late adolescence/early adulthood, as well as associations with alcohol-related problems, behavior, attitudes, and family/peer practices/behaviors.

Brief Methods

This study followed two sets of adolescents and their families from Erie County, NY, over the course of 7 years. Both sets were statistically similar in their demographics.  Children were between the ages of 11 and 12 when they first began the study, with follow-up assessments occurring once per year for 7 years.  Final sample size at the end of the study was 740.

At each assessment visit, parents and children were asked to complete several questionnaires related to alcohol consumption and other alcohol-related topics.

Specifically, the following questionnaires were given to the children: alcohol use with and without parents’ permission, quantity and frequency of alcohol use, the Young Adult Alcohol Consequences questionnaire, the Youth Self Report (the kids version of the Child Behavior Checklist given to the adults), positive and negative expectancies of alcohol consumption, the Single Category Implicit Association Test (positive and negative images and how they relate to alcohol), the frequency of their parents explaining risks associated with alcohol, and how

Photo courtesy Flickr user Jeffrey

their peers perceive different alcohol-related drinking behaviors.

The following questionnaires were given to the parents/caregivers: the Early Adolescence Temperament questionnaire, Child Behavior Checklist, quantity and frequency of alcohol use for the parent and the parents’ spouse/partner, the past 6 months and lifetime negative consequences of their own alcohol use, as well as their spouse/partner, self-reported parental monitoring/control/style, self-reported parental guidance related specifically to alcohol, rules for and ease of access to alcohol in the home, and the age when parents felt it was appropriate to start allowing their children to sip/taste alcohol.

Selected Results

  • At the beginning of the study, 34% of children reported sipping/tasting alcohol either with or without permission from their parents (remember: these were 11 to 12-year-olds).
  • For those drinking with permission from their parents, frequency was low at less than 3 times in a year, and during those events drank less than a standard drink serving (so, in other words, they probably just sipped).
  • By the end of the 7-year study period, drinking among the children/young adults was more common, with kids drinking on average 46 times over the course of a year (compared to less than 3 times at the beginning of the study), and over 3 drinks per “drinking session”.
  • After 7 years, 17% of those drinking alcohol experienced no alcohol-related problems, while 24% of them were considered moderate to high risk for alcohol-related issues.
  • The following were all associated with a child sipping/tasting alcohol:
    • Higher parental education
    • Greater frequency and quantity of alcohol use by the parents
    • Lax negative emotions by the parents for a child drinking
    • Lower likelihood of punishment for a child drinking
    • Lower perceived negative consequences and higher positive outcomes related to drinking
    • Lower acceptable age for starting drinking
    • Less talk of the risks of alcohol
    • Less restrictive rules for alcohol and easier access to alcohol in the home
    • Peer pressure and peer approval of drinking
    • High levels of surgency (impulsiveness, active, engaging, etc.) and high levels of externalized behaviors (aggressive behaviors, acting out, disobeying rules, etc.)
  • Parenting style and alcohol-specific parenting style was not associated with sipping/tasting alcohol (with parental permission) in children.
  • Drinking with permission from the parents at the start of the study was not associated with an increase likelihood of drinking at the end of the 7-year study.
  • Of those children/young adults who did drink by the end of the study, they drank more, more often, and experienced more alcohol-related problems than they did at the start of the study.
  • Sipping/tasting alcohol at the start of the study was associated with a relative risk ratio increase of 49% for the number of days drinking, 19% increase in the number of drinks consumed in a session, and a 45% increase in the number of alcohol-related problems by the end of the study.
  • For those children/young adults who reported sipping alcohol, statistical modeling predicted an increase of 16 drinking days per year (during the 7 year study period), 1 more drink per session, and an increase of 3 alcohol-related problems a year.


Overall, the results of this study suggest that while sipping/tasting alcohol before the age of 11 does not predict whether or not a child will continue to drink throughout adolescence, they do suggest that those that did continue to drink did so more frequently and in greater amounts per drinking session.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Giorgio Montersino

So, sipping or tasting alcohol before the age of 11 does not predict whether an individual child will continue drinking or having drinking problems when they are in their late teens.  So, why is it then that those children who do continue to drink do so more often, drink more per session, and have more alcohol-related problems?  According to the study, it doesn’t seem to be a result of poor parenting choices.  The results showed no associations between parenting style and drinking behavior in these kids (general parenting or alcohol-related parenting).  Though, thinking about it a little more, wouldn’t perceived consequences of alcohol abuse and fewer restrictive rules around the house be directly related to parenting style? Those factors were associated with sipping/tasting, so I would imagine parents placing slightly tighter rules and perhaps having better discussions about alcohol-related risks might impact problem drinking later on. Then, I suppose, we get back into the argument about “rules” and how children might rebel against the rules by acting out and potentially drinking even more, so this brings us to the idea of the psychology of the individual child….but I digress.

Specifically, from these results, I would consider the temperament, psychology, and maybe even genetics of the individual child and how the individual child copes with and responds to peer pressure and peer acceptance of alcohol. Not every child who sips alcohol starting at an early age goes on to problem drinking or have other alcohol-related problems in adolescence and later. What is it about those that do? A follow-up/more detailed study might be able to address this and other related questions.

Finally, this study did have some limitations, which the researchers pointed out: 1) the context of sipping/tasting was not identified (sipping alcohol for communion at church might have different outcomes than taking a sip at a family gathering, for example); 2) the study did not look at the exact age when the children were first allowed to drink alcohol (would starting them off tasting alcohol at the age of 5 yield different results than starting at the age of 10?); 3) the study did not take into consideration possible genetic risk factors for problem drinking (which I think is one of the biggest issues, as you already read above).

Overall, an interesting study that sheds some light about early alcohol sipping/tasting and consumption behavior in late adolescence.  It would be interesting to see more about why certain kids are more likely to continue increasing their alcohol intake (genetics? Psychology? Parental/peer influence? All of the above?).

In terms of real-world applications, if you do decide to let your child sip alcohol at a relatively early age, try and do so in a responsible manner and be completely open to your child about the risks involved so that they may be a more responsible drinker (if they choose to continue to drink) when they are older.


Colder, C.R., Shyhalla, K., Frndak, S.E. 2018. Early alcohol use with parental permission: Psychosocial characteristics in late adolescence. Addictive Behaviors 76: 82-87.


FUNDING NOTE:  This study was funded on a grant awarded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), though the authors claim the agency had no influence on the study or the results.  Take and use that information however you’d like.