Does your child squirm and cry in the high chair? Will she eat when she’s wandering, but clamp down when you confine her?

One reader’s question:

One of the major struggles I have is that my son often does not want to sit in his high chair to eat. I have noticed this problem is worse in the evening because my husband and I work full-time and the last thing my son wants to do when we are finally home is to sit in his high chair! We try to ignore his behavior and I sometimes sing and try and get him to laugh to make mealtime fun but it doesn’t always work. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

My response:

You need a multi-pronged approach.  Here are 3 things to try:

1) If you think that the reason your son doesn’t want to be in the high chair is because he is more interested in playing — which is common when kids start really being mobile — then I would give him some of his food “on the run” because you’ll never quite be able to compete with the fun.  Don’t do this for all meals and/or snacks because you do have to teach your son to sit at the table.  However, once or twice a day is fine.

  • Try putting a plate of bite size food on the coffee table or cut a sandwich into teeny bites and put it in a baggie he can hold.  He’ll probably gobble it all up.

2) Teach your child that misbehaving ends the meal.

  • Tell your son that squirming, crying, or throwing food at the table means he’s done eating.  Then ask him if he wants to get down.  One of three things will happen:
    • Your son will eat.
    • Your son will continue squirming.
    • Your son will indicate he wants to get down.
  • If your son continues squirming, or if he indicates he wants to get down, end the meal.  Don’t give him any food “on the run” because this will increase his incentive not to eat in the high chair.
  • Once he is down, if he signals that he is hungry, put him back in the high chair and try again.  But if he fusses, tell him once again that his behavior indicates that he’s done and ask him if he’s done eating.
  • Finally, the second your son does behave in the high chair, and I mean the second, tell him he’s doing a great job, or he’s such a big boy, or some other form of encouragement.  Then if he continues to behave, verbally praise him every so often (frequently the first few days, less often thereafter).

You may have to do this routine a couple of times the first few days that you try it — so perhaps try it on the weekend — but your son will soon get it.  The key is to establish a set of rules, and to explain them to him.

You may also have to tell your son something like, “At breakfast we sit in the high chair but at lunch you can eat in the living room,” or whatever the rule is so he knows that there are different rules for different times. This is important because if your son feels like your decision about where he eats is random he will be encouraged to fuss in order to get his way.

Your son may not fully understand everything you say, but he’ll get the gist.  Remember, you are training your son through your interactions with him.  The key is to be consistent.

3) If you think your dinner problem stems from the fact that you and your husband have just returned from a long day away, your may want more of your attention.  I think that’s understandable, so give it to him. What’s more, if attention is what he’s after, ignoring him will only exacerbate the problem.

  • Try letting your son sit on your lap for the first part of the meal.
  • Heavily interact with your son before the meal.
  • Have someone feed your son before you and  your husband get home and then let him sit (and play) at the table.

Finally, remember that most toddlers eat much less than we expect them to.  Not only are they growing less quickly than they were just a few months ago, but they’re more interested in the world than ever before.  If you use the combination of techniques I outline you should be OK.  But don’t stress about the amount he eats, especially if the doctor thinks he’s OK. The most important thing is to make sure that meals aren’t stressful.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.