As your baby starts to learn that they are an independent person they will inevitably start to explore their boundaries at the table. It doesn't just stop with toddler food throwing though! From banging silverware to throwing cups, food, and plates, babies and toddlers will do it all. Here are some strategies to help curb those behaviors.
Before we get into the specific strategies, let’s talk about the reasoning behind some of the behaviors. Especially for babies under 15-18 months, the behaviors are primarily developmental. They are exploring their world, and learning about cause and effect. When they drop a food on the ground, they’re learning that it can make a sound, or that it makes the dog come get it, or their parents get out of their seat. Often times it comes from a place of discovery, not intentional game playing or attention seeking.
As they get older, though, and for some babies this happens much earlier than others, they learn that their actions cause reactions from others and it does turn into more of a game and a way to seek attention. They’re thinking in their head something along the lines of, “If I throw this plate, it will cause Mommy to yell and it’s so fun to see her face when she does that.” Obviously there are different motives for different babies and different actions, but you get the idea.
When your baby is in the stage of exploring, one of the best things you can do is not react! We want to prolong the time before it becomes a game, for their sake as well as ours. One of the quickest ways to teach them it is a game is to give them a big reaction. Instead, if they throw their plate, for example, calmly pick it up, place it back in front of them, and say “Let’s leave our plate here.” Yes, your baby is unlikely to understand what you’re saying, but they learn through example and constant communication. It’s great to start communicating with them what we’d like them to do at an early age.
If you are able, try making a change that removes the temptation at their next meal. If they are learning to throw a specific plate, try a different one. Or serve it without a plate for a meal. Banging their silverware on the table and making dents? Try a meal that doesn’t need silverware next time. The goal is just a small interruption to let them focus on something else. The next time you serve on the plate they might do exactly what they did before, but they might not.
When they are in this stage of exploration, another thing to keep in mind is the end result of what they are doing. I’ll use a real life example here from my own family. When my daughter was right around one, she used to always put food into her water glass. She would stuff bread in there, fruits and veggies, all sorts of things. It was generally just to see what would happen, and we let her go for it. She was causing no harm, and she actually still drank the water and ate the food after! We could have stopped her, sure. But then we risked it turning into a game, versus just her exploring what happens when she does something, and then moving on. She stopped doing that eventually, by the way. It wasn’t that much later, and took no real intervention from us! So if the behavior is something that really isn’t a big deal, and is clearly explorative instead of attention seeking, ask yourself if it is really important that you stop it.
Now that we’ve got the exploratory stuff out of the way, let’s talk about what to do when it is more of an attention seeking behavior. It is still important to be as calm as you can be. They’re looking for a reaction, one way or the other. If you don’t give them that reaction, it is likely to help end the behaviors sooner rather than later. I know that’s easier said then done, but just keep that in the back of your mind as you deal with it.
While we do want to remain calm, once the behaviors are being done for attention or are unsafe, and not just to explore, we want to nip them in the bud. Putting up with poor behavior (like your toddler throwing food!) at the table just so that they will eat is actually a form of pressure around feeding, and pressure will always backfire with kids. Putting up with bad behaviors won’t get them to eat more, it will just encourage them continue to do things that aren’t acceptable at the table. So if you try a strategy below, and it’s not working, don’t keep putting up with the behavior just because you think they need to eat. Barring a medical issue, kids will not starve themselves.
Most of these behaviors happen because the child is bored, or done with the meal, and doesn’t know how to communicate that well. So give them a chance, but if they continue to do it then end the meal! There will always be the next eating opportunity that they can eat at. Do not compromise on that just so that they may eat a few more bites at this meal.
Regardless of what behavior your baby or toddler is exhibiting, there are a few across the board strategies to decrease them.
Number one is to check their high chair. Are they comfortable in it? Are their feet supported? Is it too roomy for them and they feel unstable? If they’re already out of a regular high chair, check the same things with their booster chair or toddler chair. While it may seem inconsequential, feeling comfortable in their chair is one of the best ways to minimize bad behaviors.
Number two is stick to a meal and snack schedule. Outside of all of the other benefits of it, not letting your child graze means that they will come to the table hungry. Which usually means a longer time period before these behaviors start.
Third, do your best to model the behaviors you want to see. Sit down and eat with them so they can see how you act at the table. Engage them in conversation, even if they can’t talk back yet. This active attention can also help to remove some of the temptation to do bad behaviors so that they get attention from you.
Now for some specific strategies. Keep in mind how you apply these will vary based on the age and development of your child, so use your best judgement about where your child is and what they can handle.
This is one of the most common ones I hear. It usually begins as completely exploratory, then will turn into a game sooner or later. Do your best to start implementing some of these strategies, and the ones I mentioned above, before your toddler throwing food turns into a game.
A strategy that works for many kids is to have a place that you do want them to put the food. Redirection here! So you can have a small discard plate that you encourage them to place food on when they don’t want it, or just redirect them to put the food back on their plate. A simple, matter of fact “Let’s put the carrot on this plate” or “Please don’t throw food. If you don’t want the carrot, you can put it back on your plate” can work. Calm here is key though, as you don’t want to make it more of a game.
Most babies and toddlers aren’t able to appropriately communicate when they’re finished. Teach your child sign language, and ask them if they are all done when your toddler starts throwing food. Often they just haven’t been able to tell you that is the problem. If they say no and then throw food again, pull them back from the table and calmly ask your toddler not to throw food. Ask them again if they’re done. How old they are and their understanding will determine how many chances you give them before you end the meal. But you really don’t want to be giving endless chances for them to throw food, 1 or 2 chances is fine even for the youngest ones.
It's not just about toddler food throwing! Another common issue that comes up is throwing plates and cups, too. If they are still very young, try changing up the plate or serving without a plate for a few days to reset. Once they are a little older, the redirection can start in earnest. Catch them before they pick up their plate, and engage them in a conversation. Even if it’s something as simple as “can you use your spoon to scoop up your sauce?” Get their mind off of the plate! As with above, if they do manage to throw their plate or cup, ask calmly and matter of factly that they not throw their plate. Ask them if they are all done. If they say no, give them another chance or two. Then end the meal. You don’t need to put up with bad behaviors!
Making a mess is just a part of raising a competent eater. Getting messy allows them to explore different sensations and get lots of sensory input. The more you make a big deal out of it, the longer it will go on. You can try redirecting to something else, but often if you don’t draw attention to it they will naturally get better with time as they strive to emulate you and how you eat. If you are confident in their ability to tell you when they are done, ask them after a little bit of messy play if they are done. If it turns into food throwing then follow the strategies above, but otherwise look at it as growth through play and let them explore.
For this, my number one recommendation is to check the fit of their chair. Beyond that, look for any other root issues. Is anything else new with their position or what is happening at meals? If so, try riding it out without drawing attention to it. As long as they will be safe, that is! When they do it, make sure you ask if they are done and calmly communicate expectations around their chair. If you act like it is a big deal, they will act accordingly! Do your best to just ignore it when it is not interrupting their ability to eat, or redirect to something that requires them not to have their feet on the table. If it is interrupting their ability to eat, end the meal if they continue to do it after communicating clearly with them your expectations.
Silverware is something that most parents would like their kids to use sooner rather than later. If cuts down on the mess, I get it. But it’s quite a skill to learn, and takes a long time. Even if they’ve figured out how to do it most of the time, it will still take a while for it to be quicker than using their hands.
Do your best to let them work through this. Take the opportunity to model what you want them to do with their silverware. If they start banging the silverware on the table redirect them to what you do want them to do with the fork or spoon. Don’t pressure them to use their silverware, as that often backfires and results in them wanting to use it less or only using it when you’re around. A calm, occasional question like “Do you want to use your spoon to scoop that?” Or “can you spear that noodle on to your fork?” Is fine. But don’t remind them multiple times a meal to use their silverware, or try to coerce them into using it. One, maybe two times max is all I would recommend. Yes, we want them to gain that skill, but putting pressure on them to use it to eat is not the way to do it.
These are just a few examples of some mealtime behaviors you might experience. It might start with your toddler throwing food, but it can easily be any one of these, too. With these examples, you should hopefully have enough knowledge to respond to whatever situation pops up!
As you navigate meal times, I implore you to keep in mind the division of responsibility. It is your responsibility to decide the when and what of feeding, it is your child’s responsibility to decide how much and whether. This means that pressuring them to eat something is crossing the lines of who’s job is what. And if we put too much emphasis on correcting table manners it is pressuring them during meals and interrupting their ability to decide how much they want to eat.
It can be such a fine line between ignoring behaviors like toddler food throwing just so they’ll eat, and overcorrecting. It will vary for each kid, but just keep in mind the thing that matters most in your response is what your intention is. Are you trying to keep them from getting messy because you don’t want to have to clean it up? Are you trying to get them to use silverware just so they are cleaner? Most of these skills and behaviors we’ve talked about have a developmental component. And while we definitely want to provide a firm structure to our kids around mealtimes, too much structure results in us trying to control their behavior.
Instead, we want the goal to be them eventually navigating meals themselves with their own internal desire to join in at meals and have a pleasant experience at the same time. Our toddlers and babies desperately need structure from us around meals, and they also need empathy and understanding of why they might be behaving the way they are.
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