Parents who let their children have "just a sip" of wine or beer occasionally may be setting them up to be more likely to start drinking by the time they're in high school, a study suggests.
Children who had sampled alcohol by the sixth grade were around five times more likely to consume full drinks in high school and four times more likely to indulge in binge drinking or get drunk, researchers say.
In the study, 561 Rhode Island junior high school students were tracked for three years, and by the start of the sixth grade at around 11 years of age, nearly 30 percent reported that they had consumed at least one sip of alcohol, mostly given to them by parents on special occasions or at parties.
By the ninth grade a quarter of the children who said they had sipped alcohol when they were younger said they'd had a least one full alcoholic drink, compared with less than 6 percent of those who hadn't had earlier sips.
In addition, by the ninth grade, 9 percent of the sippers had gotten drunk or had done binge drinking on occasion, compared with less than 2 percent of the non-sippers, the researchers reported in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
"We're not trying to say whether it's 'OK' or 'not OK' for parents to allow this," says lead researcher Kristina Jackson at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. "We're not saying your child is doomed."
Among U.S. youth, alcohol is the most commonly used — and abused — substance; in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 35 percent of high schoolers admitted to drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, 21 percent reported binge drinking, 10 percent admitted driving while drunk and 22 percent reported they rode in a car with an intoxicated driver.
"I think the most important thing is to make sure that children know when drinking alcohol is acceptable and when it is not," says Jackson, a research professor.
Some parents think that introducing children to alcohol by way of the occasional at-home sips can teach them about responsible drinking or even reduce the appeal of alcohol, something the new study doesn't support, she says.
"Our study provides evidence to the contrary," she says, suggesting giving young children sips of alcohol may be giving them a "mixed message."
"Some kids may have difficulty understanding the difference between a sip of wine and having a full beer," she concludes.