Thursday 14 December 2017

David Coleman: My girls won't feed themselves and just make a mess -- what should I do?


We have three young children -- our eldest girl is three years and nine months, the second girl is two years and six months, and our baby boy is just seven months. The problem we have relates to the two girls not feeding themselves. If they are fed, the girls generally eat well. However if they are left to feed themselves, mealtimes can drag on for over an hour -- they get distracted, mess with each other and it usually ends up with my husband and I feeling completely frustrated and losing patience.

I feel that at this stage the girls should be feeding themselves independently, but relatives say it will happen when they are ready and that I'm expecting too much of them.

I've tried giving treats after meals if they feed themselves, taking their meal away after a certain length of time and reward charts where they get stars (and get a present if they get a certain amount of stars). This has helped a little, but hasn't resolved the problem significantly.

Some people say that it may be a reaction to the baby's arrival and seeing him being fed, but I don't think this is the case, as they've never shown huge interest in feeding themselves and for a long while I think we probably fed them so they would eat.

They generally get fruit between meals as a snack and are hungry at mealtimes. If you could give us any advice we'd really appreciate it.

David replies:

The mix of children, food and their eating behaviour is a typically emotive issue for parents. Most of us have strong associations with food, mealtimes and eating from our own childhoods. Some of us see food as a comfort, others see it as a simple means to keep energy levels up or a means to survive.

When it comes to our own children, however, most of us seem to be plagued by anxieties. We worry about children not eating enough or eating too much. We worry about the nutritional content of what they eat, the volume of what they eat, and the manner in which they eat it.

I think it is natural to worry about our children's food and eating. After all, we are constantly aiming to help them grow and develop. Their physical growth and nutrition are quite central to all the other areas of their development.

For example, if your child suddenly starts refusing meals, then worry is a good response, because it is quite likely they are sick or distressed in some way -- we need to pay attention to the 'food strike' as a warning sign.

However, too much anxiety at mealtimes inevitably leads to problems with children and their attitude and behaviour towards food. If we are over-involved in our children's eating then it can lead to power battles (about who will decide what gets eaten), or a learned helplessness (where children don't bother feeding themselves because they just expect to be fed).

It is the latter that I think might be happening in your situation. At the moment, the girls are in the habit of being fed and they have no motivation to feed themselves.

Your frustrations about how long they take to eat on their own also means that they might get a negative message about feeding themselves.

I am a firm believer that we should, as much as possible, try to let our children find their own balance when it comes to food and eating. In practice, that means our job is to provide a range of healthy and nutritious food, but then let them decide how much of it they want to eat. I think this approach might positively impact the dynamic that occurs at your mealtimes.

Up until now, your decision to feed the older girls seems to have been based on your desire to get them to eat as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Although this might have been efficient, it is labour intensive for you and your husband.

It has also deprived your girls of the opportunity to learn to feed themselves and to decide what, and when, they want to eat of whatever food has been served to them.

The frustration you describe at witnessing the slow eating and the messing (or fun) of the girls at the table might in fact stem from an underlying anxiety that, in all the prolonged shenanigans at mealtimes, they won't eat enough.

So if you can persuade yourself and your husband that the girls will instinctively eat as much as they need at the mealtimes (and you are prepared to offer healthy snacks at other times) then I think you will find greater reserves of patience and feel much less frustrated.

By letting them pick at their food, or even play with it, they will learn the motor skills required to use a fork, spoon and knife.

By letting them determine the order in which they take things from the plate they can experiment with their tastes and preferences.

By letting them joke, mess and enjoy each other's company at the table you will allow mealtimes to remain a relaxed social occasion (as much as it is an opportunity to eat).

I am assuming from your description of the situation now that you all sit down to eat together. It is important that you do and that you don't try to feed the children at a separate mealtime.

Never forget how important it is for parents to role-model eating behaviour. You can demonstrate how to use cutlery, what is polite or rude to do with food (no peas in the nose, thank you!) and that you can decide at each meal when you are full and when you want a second helping.

Also, seat the girls at the table with one of you between them to reduce the "messing". Think about letting them come and go from the table rather than making the meal a protracted "you must sit till you are finished ... " marathon.

Don't forget to serve the girls small portions (so the meal doesn't appear daunting) as most toddlers have small appetites, and certainly have small tummies.

I hear you saying that your patience is low, but I do think that if you give the girls the responsibility to feed themselves, they will take it.

If you keep the mood relaxed at the table then you are all more likely to enjoy the meal -- even if it takes a bit of time to eat it!

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