I have started to write the this blog post about how to balance feeding kids at different ages (bearing in mind different levels of fussiness) many times over the past few years. It is especially difficult in the newborn haze to get your head in the game when a fussy toddler / preschooler is also a concern. I have my SOS feeding therapy training under my belt, my experience with assisting families and their mealtime woes, my own mealtime experiences with 2 girls (under 2 yrs apart) and I am always reading the literature from many amazing colleagues in the feeding specialty world. However, the words never seemed to flow that easily from me – because I get it. Not every day is the same. Not every child is the same. So I struggled because I want to write in a way that works for you. You are doing an awesome job. I am writing today as your cheerleader and letting you know that I get it too. I have written about the funny side of trying to bake with a toddler and an infant at the same time. I have written about how introducing solids to my baby left my toddler feeling a bit left out and demanding more attention at mealtimes. And so today I wanted to give you some more real mums to relate to and tell you about some of the theory behind the feeding balance struggle. I am also going to throw in some practical ideas about how I set and protect boundaries around my mealtimes to ensure they go as smoothly as possible, specifically when I had a newborn and fussy toddler.
So, is the struggle real for balancing the feeding needs of a newborn and a toddler/preschooler?
Lauren from Teacher Types talks about how she found balancing the feeding of her newborn and fussy toddler:
Claire from Life on Wallace reflects:
When my eldest son started solids I lovingly prepared him lots of purees and did all the ‘right’ things. By the time the next son was ready to start solids I simply didn’t have enough hands to make him specific first foods. Instead I passed him the safe or soft foods I was eating, avocado at lunch time or roast pumpkin at dinner time, for example. It may just be their personalities but my second son, who is now four, has a much more versatile diet than the eldest son, who is 6.
I can definitely relate to Claire and Lauren’s stories too. What helped me during the harder days was going back and refreshing myself on the developmental feeding continuum. It would help me get some ideas for textures I may have been forgetting about and kept me on track to keep offering variety. For the record, I do not align my blog with baby led weaning or parent led weaning (purees) for one main reason, both styles of introducing solids have merit. Instead, I like to say “first tastes”. To me both styles of introducing solids are not mutually exclusive. For example, sometimes I would present my kids with an array of soft cubes, hard munchables and soft mechanicals which I suppose would be considered baby led weaning. Other times we would all have soup, smoothies or yoghurts together – all of which would be considered purees.
I think being able to identify what foods you can offer, where to offer them and when to offer the food is the biggest part of mastering feeding children with different feeding needs.
What the Feeding Theory Says about Balancing Mealtime Roles
Ellyn Satter’s model known as the division of responsibility (DOR) features extensively throughout my blog and in what I practice. The bread and butter of the model is that parents (of children older than 2) are to assume 3 responsibilities when feeding their kids – WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. Children are then responsible for WHETHER and HOW MUCH. However, before the age of 2 these roles are different. When you have a newborn your role is to provide the food (milk) and they are in charge of WHEN. Ellyn elaborates on this here in her post for 0-3mths. I LOVE that from 2-6 months old Ellyn encourages having the baby at the table with you while you eat. This is when we start to lay the foundations of the expectations of mealtimes for when they are older and it helps you maintain the responsibilities you need to hold for older children. When babies are getting older (7-15 mths), setting the expectation of sit down snacks and starting to have a feeding routine with at least a 2 hour break between meal occasions is important. During this transition from baby to deciding WHEN to you deciding on the WHEN, working together is very important. It is often a time when sudden meal refusal starts happening. Hence, why having a pre-mealtime routine is important from this age group onwards. I also have available a video event with Meg McClintock (Accredited Practicing Dietitian) where we spell out HOW to feed toddlers without tantrums applying the principles of DOR.
All too often I see battle lines being drawn between parents and their children at mealtimes. More often than not, it’s because of responsibility or role confusion. For example, a child could feel insecure or unsure of the meal routine and hence starts to demand what, when and where they will be fed. Or a child doesn’t have set meal routines due to unlimited grazing opportunities all day long (ie no parent-set boundaries on when, where and what). Therefore, parents start getting anxious about how much and whether their child is eating. And ultimately, the battle occurs because each team is fighting for the wrong mealtime responsibility.
If you are having trouble with a toddler remaining at the table (your preferred WHERE) this post by Jo Cormack of Emotionally Aware Feeding takes you through some of the underlying causes of resistance to your chosen location.
As with all problematic mealtime behaviours, the first thing to do is ask yourself – “What is this all about?” … To change a behaviour, you need to understand it first. – Jo Cormack
I deep dive into protecting your roles with Dr Kristy Goodwin in our video event “Is Screen Time Sabotaging Your Mealtime?”
We both actually discuss how important setting and protecting your parenting roles is for us and for our children. Dr Kristy talks about it from a children’s technology use point of view. Techno tantrums and mealtime battles occur when the roles have been blurred or we have dropped the protection of our boundaries. However, don’t get us wrong, even with the best executed roles a tantrum can still happen. Being mindful of why this tantrum occurred helps you out for next time. For example, in this post I explained when my daughter is tired we still can see mealtime tantrums and I explain what I do about it using the emotion program. We need to constantly ask ourselves WHY is the behaviour happening.
Setting and Protecting Your Mealtime Boundaries
As with nearly every parenting struggle – toilet training, sleep routines, eating, behaviour management, screen usage, teaching kids about money, deciding on schooling etc… It all starts with defining your goal and working out how to get there. I definitely think that defining your goal is a personal choice and then choosing the parenting tools on HOW to make that happen are too. Also, working out how you keep the momentum and consistency of applying these boundaries is a personal choice. I remember my best friend saying to me “you pick your battles” when I was new to the mum gig and that phrase has never left me.
These are some of the tools I chose to help me out at mealtimes when a newborn entered our lives. You may find some of these tools handy too:
- I continued to give my toddler lots of exposures to foods away from mealtimes to boost her familiarity with them in a neutral environment. It meant less “surprise” at dinner time for her.
- I used baby naptime to my full advantage to prepare vegies or bake with my oldest one-on-one. She still loves to get in the kitchen and help. It also helped me up skill her enough so that she was genuinely helpful (or at least competent to happily do tasks like sorting the carrot peels in size order).
- My toddler made her meal at the table – which is also known as family style serving. I love this post by Jo Cormack explaining the social benefits of family style meals. If you look at my Instagram feed (though not glamorous) you will see every meal (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner) is family style in my house. The result is that my baby, now serves herself and learnt almost by osmosis the expectations of eating with the family.
- I breast fed my newborn at the meal table if her demand was clashing with my toddler’s mealtime schedule. I chose foods my toddler and I could eat together and were safe to eat with my newborn at my lap (eg. avocado & tuna on toast or bananas with tubs of yoghurt). To save my back from aching, I used a feeding pillow (this is a link to Diana’s website where she sells breast feeding pillows – I’m not a financially affiliated with her site just a supporting a small biz).
- With my girls (and still to this day) I use a range of positive and educational talk around food as a way to avoid applying pressure to eat. A deep dive into this topic will be on the Positive Food Talk with Kids video event – register here.
- Seating position really matters! I started out by keeping my toddler in her usual spot at the end of the table (because we had bench seats along the lengths of our dining table). I quickly realized we were falling into a trap where my oldest was demanding my attention as I kept turning my back to her when I tended to her baby sister. A quick* trip to Ikea to buy some normal dining chairs to match our feeding chairs meant that we could shuffle the chairs around our table. We re-purposed our bench seats. I moved to the head of the table and the girls sat either side of me so that they were both within arms reach and no back turning was happening anymore.
* I don’t actually think there is a “quick” trip to Ikea when you have kids, but I thought I’d write “quick” to make you think that was an easy solution :p
- Really look at the feeding tools your toddler/preschooler is using. I liked non-slip bottoms on self-feeding bowls (like the one pictured below by Smiley Organics). Check if the cutlery the right shape for your child’s hand and skill set. Is the bowl allowing them to eat their food properly? Or are they chasing that piece of slippery pasta around a large flat plate and getting frustrated? Is there some blank space on the plate that helps them motor plan and feel less overwhelmed?
- Offer a range of family foods to encourage different learning experiences – think about foods that give different colours, textures, shapes and oral motor skill development. We want variety to be normal for kids.
- I try to avoid getting up and down from the table once we are all there. I model the expected behaviour of sitting at the table and eating. As often as I can, I will set it all up before getting the kids to wash their hands, their pre-meal routine and up to the table.
- Allow the toddler/preschooler to have control over the things that aren’t your responsibility. Serving themselves from the middle of the table is a great one. I’ve also seen some success with kids using their own sandwich cutters to make their sandwiches their “own”.
- I enjoy eating with them and try to do so without distraction.
Do you have some other tips on HOW to manage the balance of newborn and toddler/preschooler feeding requirements? What role does your child like to assume at the meal? Do they like to control something that helps them at mealtimes?