- The iPad at the table
- Meals and snacks served in front of the TV
- Toys to play with while eating, for baby
- A story read to a toddler as they eat
These are all approaches that some parents use to help children get through meals when they find eating hard. And let me say for the record, that these are great parents! I’m not for a minute judging anyone who uses these techniques because often it is the only strategy they have at their disposal.
In this article, I want to explore why children may crave mealtime distractions, why they are problematic and how to move away from them in a supportive and gentle way.
Why do some children need to be distracted in order to eat?
Sure, all children like a bit of screen time, but for some children, it can genuinely seem like the only thing that will enable them to eat. This can be for several reasons:
- Perhaps they are anxious eaters and distractions help them relax.
- Perhaps they find it hard to process the sense data they get from their food (sensory processing problems can contribute to picky eating) and distractions help them by minimising their awareness of their food.
- Perhaps they are habituated to the distraction, meaning it has become a comforting ritual that they rely on in order to cope with the meal.
- Perhaps the use of screens (or other distractions) has become part of how parents persuade children to eat, so the parent - rather than the child - is relying on them.
Why do distractions matter anyway?
Let’s think about what a child is getting from being metaphorically as well as physically ‘present’ at a meal or snack time: they will be noticing what (and how) you and other adults eat and subconsciously, they will be learning from this. Research shows that what adults model has a huge influence on children’s eating, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. They ARE watching and it IS going in… If they are distracted by a screen, they will miss all of this. If you are the one doing the distracting (e.g. reading a book) this reduces your opportunity for positive modelling even further.
They are missing valuable exposures to the food on the table. Even if it is not on their plate, just being around unfamiliar or disliked food is helpful for picky eaters, if they can tolerate it. Again - you won’t see the power of exposure immediately, but when children are experiencing a wide range of food, even from a distance, this is great for them. When they are distracted, this experiencing is dramatically diminished.
We want children to eat mindfully - to eat in response to their body’s cues and to experience the sensory properties of food. For children who are very sensitive to texture, of course it is easier for them to eat in an unconscious way. Perversely, though, enabling them to avoid being fully aware of the feel of the food in their mouths will make eating even harder for them in the long run. Instead, we want children to experience textures in a way they can handle so that they can gain in confidence. Avoidance is the enemy of confidence building!
In order for children to develop a positive relationship with food (where they eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full) they need to learn to tune into these physical signals. For some children, this can be very difficult and mealtime distractions make this task harder still.
The gentle approach
There are not many areas of feeding where I advise parents to go cold-turkey. Unless your child is not super reliant on mealtime distractions and could take or leave them, I suggest a gradual weaning process. Using a timer, you could help them slowly increase the time they manage at the table without a distraction, starting with as little as one minute and building up from there. You know your child best and you will be able to set the pace of change in a way that works for them. Aim to make the process respectful of their needs and feelings; if meals are stressful and upsetting this is not supportive of your child’s eating either.
Understand their ‘why’
The key to helping picky eaters is seeing their problematic behaviours as a coping mechanism and then figuring out what they are coping with. You need to know why distractions have become important to your child (or to you). Sometimes, this requires professional assessment and support. Other times, you may already have a gut feeling about what is going on.
Don’t feel bad if your child needs to be distracted in order to eat - you are not on your own, it is really common among picky eaters, especially among those whose eating is very limited indeed. With patience, understanding and the right help, you can plot a pathway out. Like I wrote the other week - it will get better.