A new study by researchers in Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies finds that children given a sip of alcohol before sixth grade were more likely to have had a full drink or have gotten drunk by ninth grade than those who didn’t get a sip. But the study reveals only an association, not proof of a cause, the researchers caution.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Sometimes young children are allowed to take a sip of alcohol, but a new study of more than 560 Rhode Island children has found an association between getting such a taste before sixth grade and an increased risk of greater alcohol consumption by ninth grade.

About three in 10 students reported having a sip of alcohol before sixth grade. By ninth grade those children were five times more likely than those who didn’t get an early sip to report consuming a full drink of alcohol. They were also four times more likely to have been drunk and 3.7 times more likely to have tried binge drinking. Those calculations take into account some possible confounding conditions including a measure of the parents’ drinking habits.

The findings, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, counter the hypothesis that introducing children to alcohol when they are young will reduce its tempting taboo and help them better manage alcohol as they get older. But study senior author Kristina Jackson, associate professor (research) of behavioral and social sciences in the Brown University School of Public Health and at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, cautioned that although the study provides evidence that sipping is related to later alcohol problems, it does not establish that an early sip causes them. Even among those children who sipped, more than nine in 10 did not report getting drunk by ninth grade.

“We’re not saying your child is doomed,” Jackson said. “The vast majority of children, even if they had sipped alcohol when they were younger, did not report evidence of problem drinking.”

But the study findings should encourage parents to be clear and consistent with children that alcohol is not for them, she said, including keeping it out of their reach around and beyond the home.

Nancy Barnett, Suzanne Colby, and Michelle Rogers are co-authors of the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.