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.)
Study Perspective and Details
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 adolescence."
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, Donovan says.
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.
Kids and Alcohol: Study Results
"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 starts."
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:
- While sipping was common, it wasn't usually frequent. While 62% of the 8-year-olds had sipped just once, 54% of the 10-year-olds had only sipped once.
- Boys and girls were about equally likely to sip and taste.
- White children were about twice as likely as African-Americans to have tasted or sipped alcohol.
- Sipping and tasting rates weren't different for kids in single-parent households compared with those whose mothers had a husband or partner in residence.
- Sipping and tasting with friends or alone was rare; only 2% of each age group reported these behaviors.
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.
Kids and Booze: Findings 'Make Sense'
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 says.
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.
Booze and Kids: Advice for Parents?
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 delay drinking."