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Tools to bring to the table to stop tantrums, wriggles and runners

Tools for mealtimes to stop tantrums, wriggles and runners by Simone Emery | Play with Food

Do you have a child that stays at the dinner table from somewhere between 1 and 1.5 seconds?  Do they wriggle so much that they don’t really even look at their food?  Are they throwing a tantrum about just going to the table? So many parents will often blame the food for their toddler or preschooler running away from the table, constantly wriggling or throwing a mealtime tantrum.  However, in my feeding therapy experience, the food is far from being the root cause.

My first questions to parenst are often “how do you get ready for the mealtime?”, “what environmental inputs are there that the child is also having to process?”, “what is everyone else around them doing?” and “how familiar are they with the mealtime routine?”  Rather than rattle off so many articles helping you answer these questions – I’ll point you in the direction of this one I wrote about the importance of a pre-mealtime routine (with free Yoga cards for kids) AND this video about the impact of using screens before or during a meal occasion.

The next step is to see if your child needs additional help to be able to stay at the table. Yes, implementing routine, doing exercise and minimising screens are great strategies with the long-term goal in mind.  However, in the short term we may need to introduce some tools to help us bridge the gap between the now of running away, wriggles and/or tantrums AND the “ideal” family meal.

My first recommendation is to have an appropriate chair.  This article by Your Therapy Source talks about the importance of postural stability at the mealtime and also gives a great list of exercises to do with your kids to improve their stability.  See, again exercise is mentioned.  Core strength and feeling stable at the mealtime is essential so that our bodies feel safe – and then we can concentrate on eating.

I prefer feeding chairs have a foot rest, back support and allow the child to sit like a “staircase” – This means that there is a 90o angle at their ankles, knees and hips.  We also want the surface of the table to fall between the breast and belly button.  You need to make sure that the children are sitting high enough so that they can see inside of their bowls easily. When they have good visual understanding of the tasks ahead of them, they can motor plan the tasks easier.

If a chair like this is not an option for you, another comfortable position for your children may be to kneel on an adult sized chair.  It’s not as posturally stable, however, they are more likely to feel more comfortable in the feeding environment and less likely to run away, throw a tantrum or wriggle around excessively.

Ellie at 15mths enjoying dinner at the table. The bar is removable from in front of her. We took it off at about 20 months. She is still using this chair now and is rated up to 50kg. The foot rest and seat can be adjusted down as she gets taller.

For some children though, this is not enough, especially if they have low muscle tone.  They firstly need to know that they can get up from the table if “their muscles say they need to” and stand in a designated spot next to their chair whilst remaining near their food.  One process we’ve used for children with lower muscle tone in feeding therapy is to let them know that that they can stand next to the table and give the table a push if they need too (to get additional proprioceptve input).  Yet this is on the condition that they must keep one hand on the table while they let their bodies rest.  With younger children, you will need to model this.

A word on modelling, it is important that we all come to the table when everyone is ready to come to the table.

The most effective way for me to encourage my kids to do a runner from the table is for me to stand up and fetch something!  – Simone

I make sure I have everything I need in the middle of the table before we sit down (well…as often as possible).  If anything else is requested, my usual reply is “yes, I will get that after I have eaten my food”.   It’s easy as a parent to see the time when the children are eating as a great time to get stuff done. However, it’s also a great time to sit with your family and help your kids learn to eat via your example.  The second most effective way for me to encourage my kids to do a runner, is to check my phone during the meal (we also cover this in the screen time video).

If muscle tone and attention are difficult for your child, you can encourage them to stay seated by giving them another outlet for sensory engagement.  Some tools are perfect for all sorts of “sit quietly time” – however, not all of them have the greatest impact on their dietary consumption.  For example, iPads, tablets and phones at the table may help a child sit for longer and consume food, but not learn about the food and increase their familiarity with foods.  A fidget toy or game may also be great for having them sit at the table yet, it occupies their hands so that they can’t focus on eating.  Colouring in works the same way.  All perfect ideas for after a meal if you are in a busy restaurant or confined space.

Ultimately, for a child to focus on their food and to remain sitting, they may need to sit actively.

Here are some selections, I’ve found on Amazon that help your child get some extra sensory input whilst remaining at the table:

    1. Wobble Cushion – This sits on the seat and the child can wobble to get some sensory feedback during the meal. There are 2 sides – One with divets pictured and a more flat one – children seem to have about a 50:50 preference for which side they prefer.
    2. A swiss ball shaped seat that doesn’t roll is great for building core stability.  This may not suit your dining table (remembering we want to keep the table surface between the breast and belly button), but it may suit a craft table that doubles up as an afternoon tea / morning tea area.
    3. A theraband is great to tie around the legs of a chair so that kids can bounce their feet on them during the mealtime.  This doesn’t disturb the rest of the family members and keeps them engaged.
    4. Sensory weighted cushions and vests are also very helpful. Here is a YouTub tutorial on making a no-sew weighted lap “blanket” for your child.

*note: my affiliate code for the Amazon products has been applied to the links, this means that if you buy these, I will get a small commission to help me run the blog at no additional cost to you.  I’ve also only selected sellers that ship internationally.  Mostly, I hope the pictures help you see the sorts of products that are available.

If you are unsure about what strategies to try with your fussy toddler, feel free to contact me and I can point you in the right direction.

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