Sometimes it is not possible for a baby to breastfeed directly from his mother’s breast and so he needs to receive breastmilk in some other way. Often a bottle is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are other options too. Cup-feeding is one of these.

Joy Anderson cup-feeding 

Reasons to cup-feed

For premature babies, it:

  • helps to avoid ‘nipple confusion’ (where the baby needs to use different mouth actions to feed from the breast than he does for the bottle).
  • encourages the baby to take an active role in feeding.
  • improves the baby’s digestion of the breastmilk by involving the baby's saliva. This is not possible when the breastmilk goes straight into the baby’s stomach via a nasogastric tube.
  • reduces the need for nasogastric tubes, which some babies find distressing.
  • provides extra breastmilk while a baby is learning to breastfeed well.
  • allows more eye contact and interaction during feeding.

For a full-term baby, cup-feeding can be used when:

  • the baby and mother are not together for some reason
  • a mother needs to rest painful nipples to give them time to heal
  • a baby is refusing to breastfeed 
  • a baby has a minor cleft of lip and/or palate.

How to cup-feed

If you are going to use a cup to feed your baby, it is a good idea for a medical adviser or lactation consultant to watch to make sure it is being done safely and effectively. The following points will help you to work out how to cup-feed safely. There is a video clip available here that shows cup-feeding. While cup-feeding may seem awkward to start with, it usually improves with practice. You may be surprised how quick and efficient it gets.

  • Make sure your baby is fully awake, calm and alert.
  • Hold him in an upright position with your hand supporting his shoulders and neck.
  • Gently wrap your baby around his middle to keep his hands down so that he cannot bump the cup. A bib is handy to catch any dribbles of milk.
  • It is usually easier if you use a small soft cup or medicine glass.
  • With the cup about half-full, hold it so that it is just touching your baby's mouth. It should reach the corners of his mouth and rest lightly on his bottom lip.
  • Start by allowing him just a tiny sip to encourage him.
  • DO NOT pour the milk into his mouth; tip the cup just enough so that he can lap the milk himself, bringing his tongue forward to do it.
  • Keep the cup in this tilted position.
  • DO NOT take the cup away when the baby pauses, unless he pulls away.
  • Allow him to start again when he is ready.
  • Follow your baby's cues and let him set his own pace.

One family found it was easier to sit well supported in a chair next to a table. The baby sits on your lap supported in the crook of your arm. The table is useful as you place the rest of the milk there to top up the cup as the baby drinks it.

Megan Thompson cup-feeding

Older babies

An older baby who refuses the breast temporarily or refuses a bottle at child care may be happy to accept expressed breastmilk from a cup. There are different types of cups you can try to see what works best for you and baby — cups of different sizes, sippy cups, no-spill cups, cups with straw (or with a built-in straw) are possible options.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed October 2012