The toddler years can make you feel desperate. One minute they enjoy food, the next they’re rejecting everything you offer them, and the word “yuk” and “no” feel like they’re on repeat.
It is often during this time, that I see parents using “distraction” techniques in an attempt to get their child to eat. By distraction I mean doing things like allowing them to watch their favourite TV show, propping an iPad up at the table, or allowing books and toys to be played with whilst they eat their meal.
And do you know what? It can work for a while, but what are the consequences of doing this, and what are you really teaching them?
Did you know that all children are born with the ability to regulate their appetite and consequently their energy intake? Studies in healthy young babies have shown that if you increase the calorie strength of their infant formula, they will simply decrease the amount of formula they take. It makes sense really. To survive as a species, our bodies need to have some inbuilt ability to know how much energy we need. This is what our appetite is. What’s interesting, is that whilst we know babies can self regulate their appetite, studies have shown that by the pre-school years many children display “non hungry” eating behaviours. In other words they have learnt to eat in the absence of hunger and are not responding to their appetite. How does this happen?
Non hungry eating is a learnt behaviour that evolves from the environment around us. It occurs when we learn to associate eating with other things. It can come from very simple experiences. For example has your child ever hurt themselves and you’ve soothed away their pain by offering up an ice block or some other treat? Or perhaps you’ve had the opposite experience and rewarded your child with a treat because they excelled at something? These simple experiences repeated over time start to teach us to use food in a way that isn’t linked to our appetite.
Going back to using distraction techniques at the dinner table, what you are really teaching your child is to eat to an external cue, not to their appetite. Your child is learning to eat mindlessly and is far more focussed on the tv or iPad. But I can hear many of you crying “but it works, they stay at the table and they eat!”. Well yes it can. Providing something enjoyable at the dinner table (tv) will certainly be more likely to get them to stay there. But let’s be clear, they’re there to watch tv, not to enjoy the food or your company. If your long term goal is to have your children willingly coming to the table and participating in the family meal, this approach isn’t going to solve it.
Far and away the biggest concern with offering a distraction at the dinner table is the fact that it doesn’t allow the child to properly listen to their appetite. As I’ve already explained, young children can be very good at self regulating and will eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Allowing them to watch tv or do other activities whilst they are eating, erodes this ability, and over time contributes to non hungry eating. This is a risk factor for becoming overweight or obese. Teaching your child to listen to their appetite is probably one of the best things you can do early on to set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
So how do you get your child to come to the table, stay there and eat? This is the million dollar question isn’t it? First of all you need to think about the reasons that your child is not coming to the table or wanting dinner. For young children the reasons for this can often be that they are simply not hungry or they are just too tired. If your child is healthy and growing, you need to trust that they know how much they need to eat. Our expectations as parents often need checking as well. Most parents I have interviewed serve their child far too much food. Toddlers are strange creatures and can adopt all manner of eating patterns. One Mum recently told me that her 2yr old eats breakfast and then doesn’t eat again until dinner. Many toddlers are very good at going for several days eating very little to then have a few huge days of eating. These are all frustrating experiences for us as parents. As always I recommend that you adopt a “division of responsibility” around feeding. That is you decide what, when and where your child is going to eat and then it’s over to them as to whether they are going to eat it at all, and how much of it they are going to eat.
You have no way of knowing how hungry or full your child is. Don’t ask them to have a prescribed number of bites or “clean their plates”. This is reinforcing not eating to their own natural appetite and over time can erode their ability to tune into it.
So if your child only eats a teaspoon at dinner try not to obsess over it. I’m going to finish by quoting the guru of infant feeding, Ellyn Satter “Be happy with what you serve, not what they eat”.
A word on feeding disorders in infants and children…
I’ve written above that all children are born with the ability to regulate their appetite, there are however, some exceptions to this.
Infants or children that experience medical problems early in life can often get off to a horrible start with feeding. These experiences can completely destroy their ability to regulate their appetite.
For example I have worked with many premmie babies who have required nasograstric feeding from birth to survive. Being in a hospital environment, these babies are usually fed to a schedule with quantities and times dictated by dietitians and nursing staff. Whilst every effort is usually made by staff to try and adapt the feeding regime to how they see the baby responding, it is simply not the same as feeding the baby on demand and to their appetite. There may also be traumatic oral experiences such as orogastric or nasogastric tubes being inserted multiple times, oral medicines, ventilators etc etc, all of which can contribute to making a child what we call “orally averse”. That is, they don’t want anything (even things we think of as pleasant such as food), anywhere near their mouth. Other children with severe sensory issues or Autism, can also find eating such a challenge that this overrides their instinct to tune into their appetite.
These children are HARD work to feed. Whether you are trying to wean your child off a feeding tube or avoid having one inserted, it has probably made you stressed and anxious, and willing to try anything to get your child to eat. In many instances, parents find they can get a little more in if they let their child watch tv. Unfortunately while this appears to work in the very short term, it’s not solving the underlying problem, which is allowing this chid to reconnect with their natural appetite. If you are struggling with a child with extreme eating behaviours, we would still recommend not using tv or other distraction techniques at the dinner table. This just puts another barrier in place which prevents your child from learning how to self regulate their appetite.
If you are struggling with a child with a severe feeding disorder get in contact and we will try and point you in the right direction for help.
Julia @ Bloom