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Sitting still at meals hard for preschoolers

Last week, a mom asked how to get three-and fouryear-olds to stay at the table and eat a meal. "It seems that at that age, they're forever getting up and it's exhausting getting them to stay put," she wrote.
Parent Rap

Last week, a mom asked how to get three-and fouryear-olds to stay at the table and eat a meal. "It seems that at that age, they're forever getting up and it's exhausting getting them to stay put," she wrote. Here's what our parent educators had to say:

Mealtime is one of the most stressful times of the day for young families. Children don't focus on what we think is important and they don't have an awareness of time, which creates struggles in many areas.

The average age for a child to sit through an entire meal is about eight, but if they have a high energy level, they will still wiggle and jiggle their way through.

To add to the struggle, most kids are grazers and like to eat small amounts of food frequently throughout the day.

When it comes to mealtime, avoiding power struggles is important for many reasons. If there is stress and tension at the table, we lose our appetites and don't digest food well.

If we are constantly nagging our kids, they start getting into a pattern of getting attention negatively and mealtimes become the time of the day when mommy or daddy get mad and try to make them eat.

So start by adapting a neutral or even positive mood around meals. This involves ignoring some of the natural wiggling and fidgeting, while finding a way to engage the kids positively.

Notice when they do sit and eat and point it out to them. Don't gush praise, because that can backfire. Just make an observation: "You sat through your entire meal without getting up - give me five!"

We know that kids cooperate more when we provide a structured environment where they know what to expect.

Check out your routines. Are you keeping the timing of meals and the experience the same?

If not, work on becoming more predictable. Preschoolers are attracted to routine and learn through repetition. You can see that when they insist on reading the same book for the hundredth time.

The most useful piece of information I ever heard was the importance of serving small amounts of food. This can make mealtime more surmountable for everyone.

Tiny portions set kids up for success. If they want more, they can ask, but the rule is sit when you eat.

If you are worried about them being hungry at bedtime, make the beginning of the bedtime routine be last call to the kitchen.

Snack, brush teeth, story, snuggles and off to sleep. More routine!

Allison Rees Parent Educator LIFE Seminars

Toddlers are rarely developmentally ready to sit for very long at the table. At this age, they still eat little and often as their stomachs are small and a bigger meal is just not possible.

Many parents give their toddlers a good, healthy snack in the late afternoon, so that by dinnertime, they may only want a smaller amount of food.

Eating "family style" is a great way to let children choose what and how much they will eat.

Expecting children to sit and wait while the rest of the family eats may not be realistic and can set up a power struggle that will make mealtime unpleasant for everyone.

Children at this age are easily distracted, so mealtimes should be as engaging for them as possible.

Involving children in conversations about the day, keeping the conversation light and interesting, helps a lot.

Having a chance to reflect on the day is a great activity and children like to be part of these conversations. Toddlers rarely initiate conversation, so asking specific questions about their day may allow your child to be part of conversations. It's important that you set the stage for meals being times of family connection, but don't get upset if your child finishes early and wants to be excused.

As your children are able, have them assist you with dinner preparations, such as arranging raw veggies on a plate, setting the table or getting things out of the fridge.

This routine, along with eating at about the same time every night, helps set the stage for what is to come. Many families light candles at the dinner table, which can be quite mesmerizing for children, giving them something to focus on.

Three-year-olds may last seven minutes or so at the table, and older children a bit longer. As they develop maturity, they will see that dinner is something to be enjoyed and they will choose to be there.

Jean Bigelow Parent Educator


Our almost six-year-old daughter still climbs into bed with us every night.

She goes to bed in her own bed, and I talk to her about staying there all night, but when she comes, she always says it's because she's had a bad dream.

None of us are getting a very good sleep because of it. Any suggestions?

Do you have any advice for this parent? Are you struggling with a parenting dilemma? Send your input to [email protected].

Please put "the parent rap" in the subject line. Questions about kids from infants to teenagers welcome.