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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Toddler feeding: the child who won’t eat table food

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Toddlers can do their parents the very great service of pushing them to have family meals. Consider twelve-month-old Owen, who was quite happy with his bottle and the baby food his parents gave him and not in the least interested in eating what his parents ate. Owen ate in a hit or miss fashion, just the same as his parents did. For Owen to learn to eat, his parents had to show him what eating was all about: they had to have meals.

Parents may learn about meals right along with their children

To their credit, they did it. It took a lot of planning to figure out dinners around their complicated work schedules, and they had to be insistent that their child care provider include Owen with the other children at mealtime. Owen didn’t give them a lot of encouragement. Although he enjoyed being included in meals, he was slow to take an interest in the food. The first solid food he ate willingly was Town House crackers, which he bit off and gagged on rather terrifyingly, but went back for more. Ever so slowly, he developed an interest in other food.

Some children are slow to eat solid food

Children want to grow up with eating, the same as with everything else. Unless parents eat meals, a toddler may not know what being grownup with eating is all about.

Owen’s disinterest in food had a history. His parents didn’t know about the division of responsibility in feeding. They had been trying to introduce solid food since he was six months old, and rather than taking no for an answer from him, they got a little pushy with trying to get the spoon in his mouth before he indicated an interest, and keeping on trying to feed him after he turned away. Was it her fault? In being so pushy with feeding, had she turned Owen off? Or was he just overly skeptical? Maybe a little of both.

Six-month-old Milo’s parents didn’t get pushy, but he was the same way. He rejected spoon feeding. He would only explore his baby cereal when he was allowed to do it himself, even if he couldn’t do much with it except smear it around. His parents hit on the idea of filling the spoon, handing it to him, and letting him wipe cereal on his face, clothes and chair. They thickened the cereal and put a pile of it on his high-chair tray, and let him struggle to put it in his mouth. They gave him hard little teething biscuits and let him chew on them. They kept hoping that he, like his friend Martha, would learn to put his mouth on the tray and push the food in with his hand, but he never did. It was a frustrating and messy couple of months, but finally Milo developed enough finger control to pick up Cheerios and other small pieces of food. At long last he was on his way! By eight months he was feeding himself a variety of soft table food, and by a year he enthusiastically finger-fed himself whatever they put before him.

Typical problems with toddler feeding

Over many years of working with parents on toddler feeding problems, some typical patterns emerge: 

  • Grown-ups don’t eat meals. Children want to grow up with eating, the same as with everything else. Unless his grown-ups eat meals, the toddler may not know what being grown-up with eating is all about.
  • Missed opportunities. Introducing family food goes best at the almost-toddler stage, when the child wants desperately to do it himself and hasn’t yet developed toddler skepticism. But to be ready to introduce family food, parents need some success with the starting-solids stage. That is easier with some children than with others.
  • Earlier feeding and/or health problems. Owen had been slow to get started on breastfeeding, he was small and he grew slowly. He didn’t seem to eat much, even after he joined in with family meals. Owen’s characteristics made his parents pushy, and their pushiness made it more difficult for Owen to learn.
  • Parents get scared off by gagging. A gagging child’s mouth strains, his face turns red, and he may even vomit. But he can breathe; a choking child cannot. Knowing emergency procedures helps parents keep their nerve when children gag.
  • Parents don’t follow the division of responsibility in feeding. For the child making the transition to family food, parents continue to be responsible for what the child is fed, but let the child to decide whether to eat it and how much to eat. Parents build on the child’s increased regularity with eating to gradually work him toward the meals-plus-snack family food routine. 

Toddler feeding problems can be solved


To raise your child to happily join in with your family meals and learn to eat the food you eat, read Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense: 18 Months through 6 Years.  Reading about what to do, how to do it, and stories from other parents reassures you that you are on the right track. 

 

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To see what good feeding looks like as well as to read about it, see Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense DVD IIFor the home use version, click here.   

Family Meals Focus ~ No. 34

 

 

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