4 reasons your child won't stay at the dinner table

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One of the most frustrating things as a parent is when your toddler or child just won’t stay at the table long enough to eat. This is when parents often turn to distraction techniques, such as screens, to encourage their child to sit down and eat for a prolonged period. The problem with distraction is that your child is not paying attention to their bodies inbuilt signals which tell them when they’re full, and can then lead to overeating in the long term.

But why do some children have such a hard time sitting at the dinner table? There are a few challenges that children may be facing, but with a few simple adjustments, you might be back on track to a relaxed and enjoyable family mealtime.

  1. Postural stability challenges

    Posture is an important priority for the body in order to protect the brain, after all, it’s our posture that keeps our head on top of our shoulders right? Postural stability includes things like muscle tone, postural control, endurance and motor control. Postural stability at mealtimes is important as it allows better breathing, hand-mouth coordination, manipulation of food and a better range of jaw movement for chewing. Children with poor postural stability may:

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  • slouch while sitting

  • prefer to stand and eat

  • like to walk around and eat

  • slide out from underneath tables/ trays

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The ideal sitting position is 90-90-90- this means the hips, knees and feet are all at a 90 degree angle. While there are a umber of chairs on the market that have adjustable seats and foot rests, these can be quite expensive. I got ours off ebay for $50. Or you can use what you have lying around the house such as phone books, boxes or smaller chairs for a footrest, and car booster seats for added height. This website has some great images.

2. Sensory processing challenges

Our senses are closely linked with how we feel, impacting our thoughts, feelings and behaviors interchangeably. Children need to be calm, yet alert for optimal mealtimes. Stop and think about your meal times. Are you rushing to get the kids out the door so they don’t miss the bus, with everyone running around frantically? Or are you rushing through the door after school pick up, swimming etc, yelling at the kids to do their homework while you quickly whip something up in the kitchen? How do you think this impacts yours and your kids when you actually sit down to eat? Are you calm, relaxed, happy to talk about your day, or are you feeling anxious, wound up and frustrated? Having a routine can help prepare children for mealtimes both mentally and physically, allowing them to be calm, yet alert. Mealtime routines can be very different depending on your child’s needs and your families circumstances, and can include anything from washing hands, setting the table, saying prayers, or even sending your kids outside to complete an obstacle course to burn up some extra energy.

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3. Parental expectations

How long are you expecting your child to stay at the table? Obviously a 1-2 year old has a much smaller attention span and won’t be able to stay at the dinner table for the same length of time as a 9-10 year old. You need to be realistic with your expectations. A toddler will probably only stay sitting at the table for around 10 minutes, where as children over 5-6 years of age can be expected to remain at the table with the family. However, children shouldn’t be expected to stay at the table for longer than 30 minutes.

4. Lack of skills

As adults, when we have to do something we don’t have the skills for, we procrastinate and try to avoid doing the task. This is what children are doing when they don’t have the skills to eat- the procrastinate, talk instead of eating, try to wonder around the room or play with their cutlery. Eating is a complex task, with 25-32 steps in the process. If you are worried your child may be lacking certain eating skills, feel free to get in touch to see how I can help you further.

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Hi, I’m Aspen, a university qualified teacher and nutritionist. As one of seven kids, a mum and ten years teaching experience, I understand just how challenging mealtimes can be. That’s why I’m so passionate about giving families a range of strategies to reduce fussy eating and make mealtimes an enjoyable family experience. I also work with schools doing incursions, parent information sessions and canteen menu assessment.

Aspen Forgan