Child stares at food on plate

Family Health

How To Get Your Wiggly Toddler To Sit At Mealtime

May 24, 2018

Does your toddler get up and down 1,000 times during meals? Are you tired of saying “sit on your bum” and “back to the table”? The truth is, it’s important for toddlers to sit still at meals. A wiggly toddler — getting up and down from the table during a meal — will be distracted, and like with other distractions, this will affect the amount of food eaten (likely not enough). The constant up and down can create mealtime “grazing” over a an extended period of time, which can lead to unstructured and chaotic family meals, power struggles and picky eating issues.

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I totally understand how frustrating an unfocused eater can be. So, let’s talk about how to keep your toddler properly seated for meals, in order for them to eat safely without it turning into an epic battle. I’ve outlined three steps to ensure that your toddler sits still during meals.

Step #1: Consider bringing back the booster! 

If your child is under three, I would highly recommend a strapped booster seat or high chair (if it fits appropriately). Most toddlers don’t have the attention span or interest to sit still for meals. Start the meal with your toddler strapped in! It’s important for kids to feel included at the table. Make sure your toddler’s chair is close by or at its own place setting.

To keep swinging feet in check, make sure that your toddler has a solid surface to rest their feet – something like a stool or small chair beneath them. This will allow them to feel more stable and balanced, which will lead to less wiggles. If your child’s feet are left to dangle they are more likely to fidget and feel off balance, which means they spend more time trying to find a comfortable and upright position and less time focusing on their food.

Step #2: Make sure your child is in the best sitting position (they’re likely not right now!

Chances are your child isn’t sitting at an appropriate eating height at your table. It’s rare that kids under ten (and sometimes older) are able to sit and eat meals at an appropriate height. Kids are little people in a big world! They have smaller plates and smaller cups, but not smaller tables. They are asked to sit at a bigger table and told to sit still. Can you imagine sitting at a table made for a giant? I bet it would feel pretty awkward.

To have your child seated in the best position aim to have their feet flat on the ground, or on another surface such as a stool. To double check their positioning aim to have their hips, knees, and ankles at a 90 degree angle. For most kids under ten, a booster seat and stool are needed.

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Step #3: Set your child up for success and be patient 

Sometimes it is easy to forget that kids are just kids! Asking them to sit still can be a large request. Especially if they’re excited or distracted. So if you’ve followed the above suggestions and you’re still struggling with a kid that can’t stay seated at meals, ask yourself this:

  • How long are you asking them to sit still? For toddlers, mealtimes should only last for about 10-20 minutes. Any longer and your child will start to get the wiggles. There’s so much more they’d rather be doing!
  • What is their energy level when coming to the table? Have they just sat in the grocery cart for the past hour, or just finished watching their favourite tv show? If so, there’s a high chance that your kids might feel a little antsy. Kids are little bundles or energy! Before requesting them to sit still, try getting them to dance off some of their built-up energy before coming to the table.

If your toddler repeatedly gets up and down from the table after following all the above strategies, it is important to revisit your mealtime rules and boundaries. Approach the subject outside of mealtime, when everyone is calm and attentive. Talk to your kids about the mealtime rules and be assertive. Let your child know that it’s important that they come to the table (even if they choose not to eat), and that food will not be offered again until the next meal or scheduled snack. I often use the phrase, “it’s time to fill your belly because after this meal (or snack) the kitchen’s closed.”

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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