The 3-Step Strategy to Help Your Wiggly Kid Sit Still at Meals

Today’s post is brought to you by my friend and fellow feeding expert, Alisha Grogan. Alisha is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and mom of three (like me!) and she’s also the proud owner of Your Kid’s Table. Alisha and I have partnered up to co-guest post this week. My post over on Your Kid’s Table answers the question “Does my child need a nutritional supplement” (vitamins, minerals etc.). 

Alisha is the real deal–she provides helpful and practical tips and tricks that will save your sanity at mealtime, I promise. Enjoy!

My question to Alisha: 

“I get a lot of questions from frustrated parents in regards to their kids not being able to sit still at meals (getting up and down, being restless at the table, sitting on knees and then falling down etc.) and it’s effecting how much they eat and how long it takes them to eat. I’ve heard that keeping kids’ feet on solid ground (having a foot stool) can help, but would love to be able to offer my readers more advice on this…”

Alisha’s answer: 

I’m so glad you asked this question, Sarah, because having your child actually sit at a meal is incredibly important, and for more reasons than a lot of your readers would probably guess. Most obviously, a child that refuses to sit still for meals has a hard time actually eating, at least in a seated position. Out of desperation many parents resort to letting their kids eat while walking around (aka: grazing) and that can be a slippery slope to giving up on family mealtime all together, because what’s the point?

The problem with not sitting down to eat is that it often spirals into demanding picky eaters, not to mention that it is a pretty big choking hazard. And, while, I know how and why its important for kids to be seated appropriately for meals, I also know first hand as a mom that the wiggly bodies and constant fleeing from the table can be utterly frustrating!

So, let’s talk about how to keep your kid properly seated for a meal, so that he or she can eat safely without it turning into an epic battle. Make sure to check out the end of this post for a hot off the press new “How to Keep Your Kid Seated at the Table” printable, so you won’t miss a step!

What should you do if your child can’t (or won’t) sit still at mealtimes?

There are actually a couple of different ways to handle this, depending on your child’s age. If your child is under three, I would highly recommend a strapped booster seat or even a high chair if they still fit in it appropriately. If you’ve already left booster seats and high chairs behind, I will tell you that it is worth every effort to bring them back into your child’s life. Most toddlers don’t have the attention span or interest in eating long enough to sit still, and you will be fighting a losing battle until you can start the meal in a strapped position. If you want to know about how and when to move out of the highchair and into a booster check out: How to Start Good Eating Habits.

 

Step #1: Bring back the booster! Or, at least consider it…

First, bring back the strapped seat, and try to be patient. Give it time. You will need to be consistent and that may mean some tears. We actually just changed seats on my two year old because he was able to get the straps off and climb out of the high chair. Honestly, I let this go on far too long, but he’s my third kid and I’m a bit worn down!

When we introduced the strapped booster seat we said, “You get to sit in this big boy chair, and… YOU GET TO WEAR A SEATBELT!” Well, our excitement and our delivery made this an easy transition, and I have to admit I had a bit of smug joy when he tried to climb out half way through the meal.

At that point, I calmly said, “We are still eating dinner, you can get down in a few minutes.” I then directed him back to our conversation and gave a gentle nudge back to his food. Since then, I have had to remind him many times, but it has gotten a lot better. I also focus on teaching him to say (and not whine or cry), “I’m all done.” This way, he is learning how to be excused from the table.

A lot of what I just described here is applicable for older kids too! You can use similar statements and language if your child isn’t used to sitting at the table. For some kids ages three and over however, it might not be enough…

Step #2: Figure out if your child is in the optimal sitting position

Chances are your child isn’t sitting at an appropriate eating height at your table. In fact, it’s rare that kids under ten (or even older) sit and eat meals at an appropriate height. When this is the case, they start to wiggle and slide off their chair. Imagine what it would be like to sit at a really big table in a chair that left your feet dangling. It would feel pretty awkward!

You will know that your child is seated in the best position if:

  • Their feet sit flat on the ground, or another surface like a stool.
  • Their hips, knees, and ankles are all at a 90 degree angle.

For most kids ages three to nine-years-old, a booster seat and stool are needed under their feet. My seven- year-old sits this way at every meal. To see a picture of what this looks like, get some specific recommendations, and more details check out: Best Position for Your Child During Mealtime

Step #3: Give your kid a fighting chance

If you’ve followed the above suggestions and are still struggling with a kid that can’t stay seated for meals, ask yourself this:

  • How long are you expecting them to sit at the table? For toddlers this should only be for about ten to 20 minutes, four to six times per day (meals and scheduled snacks) depending on how you schedule eating times.
  • Have they had enough time for active play and physical activity? If you’ve just walked in the door from a long car ride or just watched an hour of tv, then your kids are probably going to be a little antsy. Before they come to the table make sure they have had some time to run off some of their excessive energy, or “get their sillies out”!

But, he’s still getting down from the table all the time!

If you’ve followed the steps above and still have a wiggly, restless kid at the table, here are two additional strategies:

  1. Be creative and know your child’s personal needs: Some kids have sensory needs, some are high energy, and some are testing limits. If you think that your child falls into one of the first two mentioned, make sure you read: 8 Steps to Keep Your Child Seated for Meals. In that post, I dive deeper into this topic, and provide lots of helpful resources for parents of kids with sensory needs.
  2. Work on setting clear boundaries and mealtime rules: It’s important to approach this subject outside of mealtime, when everyone is calm and attentive. Talk to your kids about the mealtime boundaries and let them know that it’s important to come to the table (even if they choose not eat), and that food will not be offered again until the following meal or scheduled snack.  I also suggest never forcing kids to eat (find out why here), and letting them know that the boundaries and rules apply to everyone in the family–not just the kids (and try to follow through on this).

If your child does get down from the table without being excused, calmly tell him that he hasn’t been excused yet and that mealtime isn’t done. Most kids over three can handle this. You can gently help him walk back to the table if need be. Then, remind him that he doesn’t have to eat, but that he does need to sit with the family for a few more minutes. In some cases you may even want to set up a timer. But, before going this route, always make sure you’ve covered the other bases.

One last important point to keep in mind–when all else fails–is that mealtimes are one of the few areas that kids can control in their lives. When a child refuses to eat or can’t sit still at the table, they might be looking for attention–at least to a degree. Try giving your child some extra attention in other areas of his or her life, and that might be the surprising solution.

This is a lot of advice to take in. To bring it all together for you, I have created a special new printable, just for you. You’ll find all of these tips and strategies in one colourful and easy-to-read printable. Share it with caregivers or grandparents, or hang it on the fridge as a daily reminder. Click this link, enter your email, and you’ll have it sent right to your inbox after your confirm your email. Couldn’t be easier!

Alisha Grogan is the owner of Your Kid’s Table LLC. She regularly shares her expert tips on feeding and sensory processing as a mom and pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in feeding and sensory processing at www.YourKidsTable.com. She is also the creator of Mealtime Works and co-creator of Sensory Solutions, both online classes designed to help parents help their kids with picky eating and sensory needs. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Sarah Remmer
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