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How do I get my toddler to sit still and eat?

Toddler Eating Issues

By Grant Anderson, Therapist, M.A.



Getting a toddler to eat at the table and even more to be focused while eating can be a very trying and difficult situation. Toddler are by nature not still and toddler eating issues are an expected part of parenting. When providing meal time you are setting a routine and pattern for your toddler. Just like any routine and structure in their lives this must be consistent and helps train sometimes very disrespectful children. Consistency is what helps a toddler understand that no matter what push back they may give they will always have the same end result and that their parents will still make them sit and eat.

When your child is a toddler it is a great age to instill these very important consistent routines. Having them eat in the same place at the same time will help in keeping boundaries to this consistency. One thing to avoid in meal time would be having your child eat in front of the television, although this may at times keep the child still, it begins a pattern and routine that is not easily broken and can make more problems in the future. As for what and how much a child eats at the table can vary from parent to parent. Some parents decide their toddler needs to take at least a bite of everything on their plate, some parents have their toddler try at least one thing, and still others opt for their child to eat everything on the plate before they are done. When you have a strong willed toddler they will push back. It’s important to keep consistent but not be rigid. Give your toddler choices. Many parents think they must fight the battle of the wills and win to be successful. This is often a mistake made. Working with your toddler can be very effective in gaining compliance from them. This is where giving those choices may increase the toddler’s desire and ability to sit still and eat. These choices may be as simple as would you like to finish your chicken tonight or finish your broccoli?  It may be, would you like to have ice cream for dessert when you finish your meal or cookies? Both still have expectations for your child, but it let the toddler choose how they want to complete the task.  

Many parents spend time trying to figure out how to parent their children and often don’t realize knowing what not to do can be just as helpful. Here are four pitfalls to avoid if your child begins to throw a temper tantrum. First don’t be too inflexible, the above makes this clear. If you are too rigid with expectations you will fight many battles of the will, that will leave you frustrated confused and often without success. Second don’t be too flexible, now hopefully I didn’t just confuse you. Too much flexibility can be just as bad as too rigid. Your toddler is still growing and they need someone like you to be in charge, while they are learning independence through choices you are giving them, they still need someone to tell them at times what is needed. (Just like a rebellious teenager!) These boundaries as I called them earlier are done in a loving and firm matter letting the child know it is for their benefit you hold to these lines. Don’t try and reason with your toddler. Toddlers do not have the capability yet to make logical or reasoned arguments. As parents we often want to let our children know the logical reason we are making requests of them when they are arguing. This will not help the situation and will once again leave you frustrated. Finally don’t scream back at your child. Toddlers are well known for losing their tempers and screaming at mom and dad. This stems from a lack of ability to appropriately express themselves and losing control over decisions in their lives. It’s important to remain calm and let them know that those behaviors are not acceptable, and may lead to consequences. If you are finding you are struggling as a parent to control your own temper in these situations it may helpful to seek out support from family or friends who have similar age children and can help you cope. Know that you do not struggle in vain many parents go through these struggles with their toddlers and sticking with it and being consistent with your parenting will help you to teach some very important lessons to your toddler.