View Full Version : Toddler Discipline and Sitting-Still During Meals

04-27-2009, 09:50 AM
I have a 22 month old daughter. In the past two-three weeks, she's had a slight behavior change which I'm not sure how best to address.

Up until this point, she's behaved pretty well at meal time. She'd sit in a high chair (strapped in with a waist belt) and eat and play pretty nicely. She'd feed herself from the chair tray or color or play with stickers, etc. Most importantly, it wasn't a fight and it was a rather pleasant time for all of us. She'd also generally behave like this in a restaurant (fast food and sit down), sitting in high chair at the table.

Some time in the past few weeks, she's started to refuse to sit in her high chair. So we tried a booster, and that didn't work. And she wouldn't stay in her chair at meals outside of the house either.

Now we're trying to figure out what to do. She's been eating the past week mostly by making pit stops at the dining table to grab what she wants to eat. Sometimes she'll climb up on the chair we have for her and eat and sit for a few seconds, then its back down to run to the other side of the room.

So I guess I'm asking for advice on two fronts: 1) addressing our specific situation at meal time, and 2) how do you know when discipline will be understood by a toddler.

What I mean by question 2 is when is it futile to try to get her to change her behavior (because she doesn't have the mental development to understand this cause and affect), and how will we know when that developmental milestone has arrived. I've read all the sections on discipline in our American Academy of Pediatrics book, but it doesn't address this issue.

Any advice or experience is appreciated.

P.S. We spoke to her pediatrician about this...I'm just looking for second opinions because her response was basically "every kid is different and don't worry, she's fine...she's just asserting her independence". Which we know is true, but we also want to provide her with structure and set some guidelines so we don't have the monster child in eating venues when we visit WDW in the fall.

04-27-2009, 10:21 AM
Your pediatrician is right, but I understand your desire for making it through meals without problems while on vacation. I think the key is that you have to be consistent at home. If you're letting her get up and grab food on the run at home, she's going to expect to be able to do it on vacation, too. If you want her to sit in a chair and stay alert and aware of mealtime, then you'll have to work on that behavior at home with the same expectations she will be under in a restaurant. Consistency is really key, and after a few tries, she will probably catch on and get it. But it won't be fun or easy, and I'm all for avoiding stress at meals. So... I think you'll have to decide what's going to work for you best here. Either go with the flow and be willing to give up ADRs or try to work on the consistency thing and establish a solid routine at home even if it causes temporary stress and disruptions. Best wishes. I know it's not always easy.

04-27-2009, 10:32 AM
Consistency is the word. Our youngest son had this thing (at about the same age) where I'd call him and his brother to the table and next thing I'd know, he'd be sitting in the MIDDLE of the table. I'd take him down and put him in a chair and tell him he had to sit there, turn my back, and he'd be right back up on the table! After several weeks of playing this game, he finally got the message that he was not the centerpiece! While it seems funny now, (25 years later), it was frustrating as all get out then. Same way, both sons used to try to come to the table with baseball caps or any assortment of hats they had (firemen's hat, cowboy hats, wizard hats,etc) from the time they were tiny. I told them it wasn't polite and they couldn't eat with the hats on. Now we go to restaurants, and when they see grown men sit down with baseball hats on, they're the ones having a fit about it! Just be patient and consistent...it will sink in what you want her to do!

04-27-2009, 10:42 AM
Well, keep in mind that you will probably get a lot of very different suggestions because, like others have told you, every child is different. And, what may work for one situation, may not work for every situation. All that being said, I can tell you I had a very similiar situation with my daughter when she was around this age so I can share what we did & how it worked.

First, let me say one thing: if you cannot control/discipline/handle a 22 month old, you won't be able to handle a teenager. The rules and discipline you establish now will carry forward and lay the foundation for your child's future behavior. You must establish that there are rules to be followed, and there will be consequences if you break the rules. The second key is CONSISTENCY. Repetition is the key...she won't get it the first time, or second time, ...or maybe even the 50th time, but she will get it, just don't give up. Do not make threats...be prepared to do what you say you're going to do.

Now, at the risk of getting called on the carpet, we used a combination of "time outs", taking away priviledges (movies, games, etc.), and if the behavior problem was very serious, she would get a spanking. (Luckily, we very rarely had to spank, as time outs worked very well for her.) A child at 22 months knows when they're pushing the boundaries, and will keep pushing until you enforce the limit. The key is to taylor the limits to their age. For example, a 4-year old should be able to sit longer than a 2-year old at the dinner table. Put her in a booster chair at the dinner table at home and explain that this is how "big girls" eat. If she gets down, say something along the lines that "big girls sit at the table and eat with mommy & daddy" and that if she gets down again, you'll have to put her back in the baby chair. If she gets down again, immediately put her in the high chair. At this point, you will probably have a screaming & irate child. Stay calm & focused, and when she calms down, tell her she can leave the table once she's finished eating. If she refuses to eat, after about 15-20 minutes, let her out of the chair but explain that if she's hungry she'll need to sit at the table to eat.

You may need to repeat this cycle dozens of times, but I would definitely not tolerate grabbing food from other people's plates, running around, or throwing food. Remember, the keys are to be firm & consistent.

Good luck and hang in there...this too shall pass. My daughter is 16 now & driving....and even though she's a great kid, she still knows that there will be consequences if she doesn't follow the house rules.

04-27-2009, 10:49 AM
To address the second part of your question more specifically, it's not futile to try and get your toddler to understand cause and effect. She already understands that she can train you to let her do it her way. :) It sounds funny, but it's true. She knows that if she fusses, you'll let her down and allow her to "graze" meals her way.

So you have to gently but consistently let her know what you expect from her, like for example at mealtimes, you sit at the table as a family and remain seated while everyone eats. I wouldn't force her to eat. I would let her know that the expectation is for her to stay politely seated during mealtime, and perhaps stay strong that if she doesn't eat then, she won't be eating by grazing later. She really will catch on. She won't starve. It may be trying at first. If she has been able to get up mid-meal, she will want to keep on getting up. Toddlers thrive on routine. They may not like it at first and there could be some clashing of wills. But they do learn and understand.

04-27-2009, 11:24 AM
Thanks to everybody.

We are a routine family....we keep her schedule very defined...nap, milk, meals, bath, book, all come on time and in the same sequence. I guess that's why we haven't had many battles with her....yet.....and why this behavior has surprised us.

Y'all have convinced me that this is a battle worth fighting and that she's capable of understanding. I'll admit I'm surprised that a 22 month old is cognitively developed enough to understand all this....but she's hit all the developmental milestones so it must just be that me and the Mrs weren't being as disciplined about discipline as we are about schedule and routine.

BTW...it wasn't that she was squirming and that we'd let her out.....she contorted in every way possible to prevent that little butt from being placed in that little high chair seat.

04-27-2009, 11:30 AM
As others have said, consistency is the key. Don't let her grazing habit continue as it may be impossible to break later. Let her know gently but firmly that she must sit at the table if she wants to eat, even for snacks, and stick to that. You'll probably have some stress now as she balks against you but she'll soon learn what the limits are and go back to her good table habits.

04-27-2009, 11:34 AM
:twocents:First of all, remember you are going in the fall, and what a difference a summer can make! I have three kids each are 17 months apart, believe me, it will work out. Most of us have had a less than wonderful meal here or there. Also the only people that will be giving you "the look" do not have kids or don't know any. Try not to worry too much about it and like others have said, set the rules and stick to them, she will be fine and you all will have a great time!:mickey: When we go in July mine will be 11, 12 and 13. They are all well behaved and know how to conduct themselves in public.:lei:

04-27-2009, 11:38 AM
BTW...it wasn't that she was squirming and that we'd let her out.....she contorted in every way possible to prevent that little butt from being placed in that little high chair seat.

My kids used to do this with their car seats. In fact, one of my boys unbuckled his seat while I was driving!!!:eyes: He got a spanking for that and it never happened again. Even now that he's 19 and in the Navy, he buckles up every time he's in the car with me. I certainly hope it is the same way when he's not with me.

04-27-2009, 11:55 AM
BTW...it wasn't that she was squirming and that we'd let her out.....she contorted in every way possible to prevent that little butt from being placed in that little high chair seat.

Been there. They're so cute. I can laugh about it now that mine are teenagers. But I know it's not funny at the time and it will be a bit of a challenge. Toddlers will never cease to amaze you. Best wishes and enjoy this time, even the challenges. One day, she'll be grown and headed off to college, and she might even thank you by then. :D

04-27-2009, 12:02 PM
Consistency is definitely the key, but bear in mind that for the immediate future you may be doing nothing more than laying groundwork for the future.

It's very difficult to reason with toddlers. The best thing you can do at this point is show them that they're displeasing you, that their behavior is unacceptable, and that they're not being good.

Because trying to get them to understand cause & effect at 22 months is pretty fruitless. They don't really have the ability to logically link behavior with consequences yet at that age.

But you still have to do it anyway, because you can't make it a total surprise later on when they are old enough to understand.

04-27-2009, 01:07 PM
My DD went through the same thing. She does not eat "meals" often. She snacks a lot. As far as discipline goes, there is nothing really to discipline her for. She has an idea of right and wrong. It doesn't sound like she is misbehaving, she is not behaving how you want. That is my interpretation.

My ideas and what I do for my daughter:
1. At sit down meal time, she has to sit, eat, drink and behave. When she wants to get up, she cannot come back. We let her know before she leaves the table.
2. Find another distraction to keep her at the table. We used coloring books, stickers, etc. As those stop working, we find something else.
3. Trick/coerce them into staying. We use the favorite toy of the day as a "threat". We tell her that she cannot play with XXX if she does not sit through dinner or behave properly. This will usually put her mind back to being content with coloring books or stickers.
4. Sometimes letting her have her own "friend" at the table resolves it. This week it is a giraffe from the Dr. Seuss books. If it is at the table, she is at the table.

Understand she is learning her boundaries, but does not understand them. She is testing limits. This is all natural. You do not want to scare her from this phase.

04-27-2009, 04:55 PM
Both of my boys went through this phase. DH and I decided early on that no matter their age they were expected to do/not do certain things, within reason of course. We did not tolerate "grazing". If they got up from the table that was it for that meal. The food got picked up and they had to wait for the next meal. It didn't take very long for them to understand what was going on. Of course we felt bad the first few times because it did seem as though they didn't really understand why they couldn't eat again when they were still hungry. But like I said, it didn't take very long for them to realize that we eat at meal time and when we get up from the table meal time is over. Once they caught onto that it worked wonders. Have patience and stay firm, you will get through it!!

04-27-2009, 06:41 PM
Same as many of the above. When my siblings and myself were growing up if we wanted to eat we did so at the table with everyone else. My nephew ran into this problem when he was about 3 and it drove my parents nuts. While my sister let it go my parents didn't. When he ate by us, and he often did, he ate at the table in one sitting or the food was gone and so were the after dinner desserts. He learned pretty quick.

He now knows if he's at Grandma's or out to dinner with her he doesn't budge from that seat without asking first.

04-27-2009, 06:43 PM
Oh gosh...I think ALL toddlers do this, and it starts right about at the age your daughter is doing it!

First of all, I think it is unreasonable to expect a toddler to "sit nicely" for a 20 minute meal. Heck, we don't even spend that much time at the table at mealtime (maybe we're fast eaters!). :D

A 22 month old toddler has an attention span of 3-5 MINUTES for any given activity, eating included.

She is doing this because she is NOT HUNGRY at mealtime. Try not giving her an afternoon snack. I'll be she stays put long enough to eat her dinner! Let her get down when she's done too...there is no reason to force her to stay at the table if she has finished eating. She is not there to socialize with you. ;)

When you go out to eat, THAT is another story, and because of that, you should bring along extra toys/diversions that are ONLY brought out for restaurants, to keep her attention longer. We used to keep a bag of toys in the car that we ONLY let the boys play with at restaurants. Now that they are older, they are content to color with the crayons/paper menus they are given at restaurants, but MANY MANY times in the past, DH or I would have to get up with one or the other and "take a walk" when one would get too rowdy at the table. It's the nature of having a toddler. Eventually, trust me, she will learn to sit through a meal, but you can't have that expectation between the ages of 2-3, unfortunately. Some people are lucky, and get kids who will just sit for hours at a table happily, but MOST 2 year olds are NOT like that! We had to give up on going out to eat for a good 3-4 month span, because our younger son was simply TOO MUCH to deal with. He was bad. But, it was a phase, and it passed, and we can go out again! :D

When speaking to our pediatrician, and from my experience talking to other moms (and with BOTH my boys), toddlers graze, and it's totally normal. The one surefire way, as I mentioned, to make them sit through a meal long enough that it will please YOU, is to skip that afternoon snack. It works every time.

Even now, my kids are almost 5 and 3...when they snack in the afternoon, NEITHER of them will sit longer than about 5 min at the dinner table. But, when I don't give them a snack (or I give them something VERY light, and more than 2 hours before dinner), they are so hungry that they can sit and eat for 15-20 min and they remain still and quiet, and focused on their food.

Finally, we went through a LOT of booster seats, until we found one that the kids would tolerate. It's the BabySmart Cooshee Classic. I had to get rid of THREE other boosters, because my kids wouldn't stay in them, but when I got this one...they both LOVED it! Worth a try...

Oh, and one more thing I do...if they get down, and want to "graze", I remove their plate from the table, and set it on the kitchen counter. If they want to eat, they have to finish their meal in the kitchen, alone...in a boring place. No watching t.v. or playing with toys while they eat. They usually will bring the plate back to the table, sit down, and finish eating. You do this a few times and eventually they "get it". It's about giving kids TWO options, and making one of them super unappealing...no one wants to eat alone in the kitchen...

04-28-2009, 10:29 AM
On the subject of grazing ... I'd be hesitant to discourage kids from adopting that practice. It really is the healthiest way for people to eat and, as long as they're snacking on foods that are good for them, there's no particular reason to force them into a rigid "three meals a day" habit.

A 22 month old toddler has an attention span of 3-5 MINUTES for any given activity, eating included.True, but consider the fact that maybe the way they learn to focus for longer is by parents emphasizing the need to stay put.

Sometimes I think parents forget that it's our responsibility not just to maintain our kids but teach them how to develop into useful adults.

04-28-2009, 10:43 AM
try to make sure they are getting lots of exercise and fresh air. have them run around outside or at a park for about 45 minutes before coming in and getting washed up for dinner.
That way they have gotten the running around out of their system, they are hungry and ready for some sitting time.
Keep QUIET toys to keep them busy at the table.
Make sure you get finger foods for them, it will take longer to eat.
Make sure that you don't deviate from the practice. If you let them run around at the table, get out of the seat, throw food, climb out of the high chair etc, they will not learn how to behave at the table.

04-28-2009, 11:34 AM
Thanks again for all the advice.

04-29-2009, 10:36 AM
Sometimes I think parents forget that it's our responsibility not just to maintain our kids but teach them how to develop into useful adults.

Hear, hear!

My 22 m.o. son loves to be read to during dinner, so I'll frequently read The Happy Lion to him five or six times over dinner. It's funny when he goes, "Ohh, la, la" along with the book.

04-29-2009, 11:45 AM
On the subject of grazing ... I'd be hesitant to discourage kids from adopting that practice. It really is the healthiest way for people to eat and, as long as they're snacking on foods that are good for them, there's no particular reason to force them into a rigid "three meals a day" habit.

True, but consider the fact that maybe the way they learn to focus for longer is by parents emphasizing the need to stay put.

Sometimes I think parents forget that it's our responsibility not just to maintain our kids but teach them how to develop into useful adults.

Ian, I agree TOTALLY with you on the subject of "grazing". That was sort of my point. You can't expect (nor should you force) a toddler at that age to "sit still" at the table for 3 meals/day. It's not in their nature, and it sort of sets the stage for an unhealthy way of life. Grazing has been proven to be healthier for children AND adults. My point about cutting out an afternoon snack was more for when you NEED a toddler to sit at a table longer (like, when you are going out to eat, or you are visiting with company...that sort of thing).

On any given day, I allow my kids to eat when they are hungry, no matter what time it is. Since I stay at home, this is easy. We have an "open kitchen" policy, and they are old enough to go in there and get healthy snacks that I keep within their reach when they are hungry; they eat every few hours...little things. At dinner, they eat a pretty small meal most nights, and they are done in less than 10 min, which is why OUR expectations for "sitting at the table" are not very long.

But, we DO have a rule in our house. We eat AT the table, in our seats. They know this rule as "good eating manners".

I agree that it is important to teach from a young age, the importance of focus, etc. However, you have to keep your expectations in line with the cognitive abilities of your child at any given age.

04-29-2009, 04:18 PM
Don't let her graze. If she wants to eat, she has to sit at the table or in a high chair. Kids are smarter than we think, and she'll learn pretty quick that she needs to sit nice.

04-29-2009, 04:29 PM
From the sounds of things you know in your heart how to handle this. You are right, every child is different and you know yours best.

One suggestion I have is let your child pick out one or two really fun, quiet activities i.e. coloring or looking at a book, to take to the table with them. Make sure they know they can have these things if they sit still; like a big kid, and when not eating. It might take a couple times to practice but they will get the idea that it is much more fun to sit and do an activity that they picked out themselves.

Happy parenting!

05-01-2009, 12:33 AM
It is always a little reassuring to know that I am not the only parent dealing with this! My 23 mo DS is testing his limits these days as well. Right now a firm "NO!" keeps him in his seat, but I have memories of his older brother running around the table. It takes time and consistancy, but eventually you will sit through a meal and no even think about it!

05-01-2009, 09:50 AM
First rule was when we go to a resturant you stay in your seat. You did NOT make noise to disturb OTHER diners (not every diner is fond of kids no matter how cute the parents think they are).

One of my favorites was if he didn't do what I told him we would go sit in the car. This was pure TORTURE. I'd give him a warning or two then I'd scoop him up and take him to the car put him in the car seat buckle him in and just sit there. SIGH...sometimes my ears felt like they were going to explode but he caught on really quick. (Not sitting in the car seat or even attempting to unbuckle it was an instant spanking). Fortunately this only happend a couple of times.

"Balony" a 22 month old doesn't understand...they LEARN behaviors...Many learn the word NO very well. I would not permit the "NO" word. It made me crazy when a 2 year old tells me no. From the moment they start "crawling" behavior can be learned. You've just got to be consistant and have patience.

I think it's WONDERFUL that you're being pro-active NOW. Too often parents wait till the child is older...by then it's too late and they turn into the monsters that you have to leave in the "child swap" till a better one comes along.

05-01-2009, 12:06 PM
My 9-yr-old always has been willful and tries to have her own way. I find it helps me avoid battle scenes if I calmly state the rules in the positive, rather than mentioning the negative consequences. In response to her whining/complaining that she's hungry (because didn't want to reinforce the grazing habit), I tried to say in a happy voice "Yes, I know. I'd love to feed you when you sit in your chair/booster seat." If I put it in the negative-- You have to do.... You can't eat if you don't... If you get down the food goes away...-- those immediately sparked the battle of wills. I still use it today, now she wants to dictate what foods I serve by claiming she won't eat the things she doesn't like. That's OK, I say, maybe you can eat something at the next meal. (At age 9, I know she won't starve from one meal to the next, and she's fully capable of learning to eat more than a toddler's selection... she's finally learning and has added quite a few new foods to her list-- Yay!) Good luck, and don't be sucked in to her world of "you can't make me no matter what you try"!

05-01-2009, 12:13 PM
First rule was when we go to a resturant you stay in your seat. You did NOT make noise to disturb OTHER diners (not every diner is fond of kids no matter how cute the parents think they are).

I don't have any kids but I love them, especially at Disney World. But sometimes eating is another matter. We were having a nice dinner at the California Grill. Next to us, a nice family of 4. Parents and a boy and girl. The kids sat there nicely, colored, ate their food, they were adorable. Across the way, large family eating with one empty seat. Where was he? Running around, lying on the floor, standing next to other people's tables no where near his. Mom and dad very rarely called him over or tried to stop him. I expected a waiter to trip over him and someone possibly get hurt. Now that's annoying. I understand about kids and toddlers but you shouldn't be enjoying your dinner while your kid is standing next to my table interrupting mine, that is just wrong. Not that I was implying anyone here would do that, I was just sharing a story. I wasn't trying to upset anyone and I hope I didn't.:mickey:

05-01-2009, 08:22 PM
and I killed the thread, sorry :(

05-02-2009, 05:32 PM
In addition to the many good tips Intercotees have given in regards to creating a consistent structure and routine for eating at home - I would also suggest starting to prep her for the trip when it gets closer. Just remind her at dinner (maybe every night for two weeks before the trip?) that soon we're going to be going on vacation and eating with lots of people. We have to be good while we're there and sit nicely. Obviously word it however is best for your daughter but being proactive goes a long way.

05-02-2009, 07:28 PM
I have always maintained that duct tape is the best baby-sitter. What... NO I do not have kids... so what? hehe

05-13-2009, 05:26 PM
We took a slightly moderate step with this. As I didn't want every dinner to be ruined. We certainly let our daughter down but she wasn't allowed to graze. If she got down the food went away and she learned that pretty quick. Now my daughter is a fast eater, as am I, so sometimes going out to dinner can be a real hassle - especially when we go out with my Dad who will savor a meal for a good 30 to 40 minutes beyond what everyone else has. I don't understand why he eats so slow - the food gets cold sitting for that long.:sick:

Anyway - we've brought toys and stuff to help entertain when we go to resturants - not anything loud the typical coloring books, play-doh, toy cars, etc. and yes we've had to leave a resturant a few times.

You can't let a toddler walk all over you but you don't have to be General Patton either ;)