Want to keep your toddler or child to sit still at meals? This 4-step strategy works miracles, without turning mealtime into an epic battle.
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My toddler won’t sit still at mealtimes! What should I do?
It’s important that your child sit still at meals, for a few reasons. A wiggly tot who is getting up and down from the table during a meal will be distracted and, like with other distractions, will end up eating less overall. Letting your child “graze” throughout a meal (which happens with getting up and down and wandering) can be a slippery slope to unstructured and chaotic family meals, power struggles, and picky eating issues. We also know, firsthand, how utterly frustrating wiggly bodies fleeing from and coming back to the table can be.
So let’s talk about how to keep your kid properly seated and sitting still for a meal so that they can eat safely without it turning into an epic battle:
1. Bring back the booster!
If your child is under 3, I would highly recommend a strapped booster seat or even a high chair if they still fit in it appropriately. This one is my favourite. 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’ve already left booster seats behind, it’s worth every effort to bring them back, even if that means investing in a new one. You could call it a “big kid chair” or get them excited about saying “you get to wear a seatbelt!”
2. Make sure there is a solid surface for their feet.
If your toddler’s feet are dangling, they’ll feel unbalanced—which means more time trying to keep their body upright and balanced, and less time focused on their food. If there isn’t a ledge for their feet on the seat already, add something like a stool or a chair beneath them. This will allow them to feel more stable and balanced and lessen the wiggles by a long shot. This is why I love this one – there are flat surfaces for your child to rest their feet on during a meal, AND they convert into toddler/child seats that grow with them!
My younger son wanted to sit in a regular chair so that he could be like his siblings, so we let him and it was a bit of a disaster—it was too soon and he got up and down about 100 times every meal. We decided to try a new chair that was portable and was able to attach to the table so that he felt as though he was a part of the meal and still sitting in a “big boy chair.” It worked like a charm and he loved it!
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3. Get into 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 10 (or even older) sit and eat meals at an appropriate height (most kids aged 3 to 9 years need a booster seat and a stool under their feet). 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 90-degree angles
4. Help a kid out! Give them a fighting chance:
If you’ve followed the above suggestions and are still struggling with a kid who can’t stay seated for meals, ask yourself:
- How long are you expecting them to sit at the table? For toddlers, this should be only about 10 to 20 minutes, 4 to 6 times per day (meals and scheduled snacks). Here are some sand timers that might help as a visual.
- 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 television, then your child is 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 excess energy or “get their sillies out.”
- Are there clear boundaries and mealtime rules? It’s important to approach this subject outside of mealtime, when everyone is calm and attentive. Talk to your child about the mealtime boundaries and let them know that it’s important to come to the table (even if they choose not to eat) and that food will not be offered again until the following meal or scheduled snack.
- Are they looking for attention? Remember that when a toddler refuses to eat or can’t sit still at the table, they might be looking for attention—at least to a degree. Try giving them some extra attention in other areas of their life, and that might be the surprising solution.
Food to Grow On is the definitive guide to childhood nutrition, packed with practical advice to support you through pregnancy, and up until your little one starts school.
Laid out in an easy-to-navigate question and answer style, this book provides practical advice and support from Sarah Remmer and Cara Rosenbloom, two trusted registered dietitians (and moms). Food to Grow On is packed with hard-earned parenting wisdom and the very latest research in pediatric nutrition, so you will feel supported, understood, and ready to help your child thrive.