Q&A: 20-month-old squirmy at mealtimes

Sylvie writes:

"Here is a toddler question. Our little one is almost 21 months, and in
the last couple of weeks he has started being difficult at meals. He
still eats well, but he gave up sitting in his high chair one day and
mostly he wants to sit on one of our laps for the whole meal. He has the
Tripp Trapp chair, so at first I took off the baby seat, thinking he'd
be happier sitting in it like a normal seat. Didn't work. Then I bought
him a little step stool, thinking that he try to climb up himself. Also
didn't work. I even don't have a problem if he just sits in a normal
chair to eat. But usually he just whines and screams until he gets a
lap. Otherwise he is a cheery, happy toddler. He sleeps well, eats well
and there haven't been any other big transitions lately.  Is this just a
phase? I'd like to know any good strategies to enforce some type of
meal time rules that avoid any yelling. I assume he is just testing
boundaries, but I'd like to teach him about basic rules (i.e. we sit
either in a high chair or a normal chair for meals) without having to
yell at him. Ideas?"

It's been awhile since I've posted a mealtime question about a 20-month-old, so Sylvie's question was right on time. It's no coincidence, I think, that 20 months seems to be the peak of mealtime resistance. If you think about what's going on developmentally, it makes total sense. The 18-month sleep regression, which gets all the press (at least here on AskMoxie.org), is really just part of a larger phase of development that includes brain development stuff, movement stuff, speech development, pattern recognition, and a big phase of figuring out that they are separate from you (and from the rest of their environments). It seems to last roughly from 15-21 months, but of course varies in length, intensity, and scope across all kids.

The upshot of this phase is that they can see and taste autonomy, but can't actually reach it. They can tell that they want to go someplace, and can maybe run there by themselves, but aren't allowed to. They have things they want to say and tell you, but probably don't have the speech skills yet to say all the words. They can see all this cool stuff that they want to do but The Man (aka you) is keeping them down.

Meals are the only area in which they can really exert any control. Either by refusing to eat things, by refusing to swallow, by eating only a limited range of foods, by throwing food on the floor, by refusing to sit in their high chairs, whatever. And because we parents are so concerned about their eating nutritious meals in adequate amounts, their power is actually real instead of just symbolic. In other words, when parents care, kids actually have power. Which is why they keep doing it.

[What you do about that depends on what your goals are. I never wanted to disenfranchise my kids. I wanted them to feel like they had some control over their actions and environments. So I tried to give them a lot of choices (binary choices–this or this, in which I was truly ok with either choice) to help them build decisionmaking skills and also help them feel like they had some autonomy. At the same time I tried to let go of the food stuff, so that anything that happened at mealtime wasn't going to bug me so much. I wanted to shift my kids' way of learning about control from mealtime (which was annoying to me) to other areas that weren't as annoying to me. And all this theory was AWESOME, except that my kids were still toddlers and were not on board, so it was all a chaotic crapshoot anyway. Cue the thousand tiny violins. Also: It gets better. My kids both got their own breakfast today and I'm not actually even sure what they ate.]

So, yes, this is just a phase. Sylvie's doing the absolute right thing since her goals are to teach her son table manners and a standard of conduct at mealtime, while still giving him choices within that. It would probably be working really well, except that he's 20 months old. And it's coded into him to resist. When I think about kids this age the phrase "bag of cats" comes to mind.

So my advice is for Sylvie to stay true to herself and her own ideals of both a) what she wants to teach her son, and b) how she wants to teach it to him. She is being an excellent mother and doing all the right things (for her own personality and goals). Eventually her son will come out of this phase (probably in a month or two, but at least by the time he leaves for college), but in the meantime, she's at least doing the best for herself, and knowing that eventually what she teaches him is going to click. You can't control your kids anyway, so you might as well be happy with your own decisions while your kid is going through the necessary but annoying developmental stages.



22 thoughts on “Q&A: 20-month-old squirmy at mealtimes”

  1. Both of my kids went through a “doggie” phase, where they liked to crawl around the table and be fed like doggies by us. When my 1st did this, it really bugged me (I think because in the back of my head, I was thinking what all those other parents would think if they saw that, especially my parents…the horror!).Then I realized that my goal for my kids is proper mealtime etiquette, yes, but also eating a nutritious dinner and low stress for me. The doggy phase was very short-lived, so we went with it. My kids (7 and 3) now have quite good table manners, although they still need some occasional reminding. They even behave well in restaurants.
    I think, like with pretty much everything in parenting, you have to decide how much the particular phase annoys you. If you can see it as the short-lived thing it is (believe me, soon he will want to be a “big kid” and sit all by himself), then you can allow him to be clingy for now. If it really bugs you, enforce it, but realize that you will be swimming upstream.
    We have structure in our house, but quite a bit of flexibility within that, if that makes any sense at all.

  2. I am not coordinated enough to eat with a squirming kid on my lap. At this phase I pulled DSs chair right next to mine so that his leg was against mine. That seemed to solve the closeness issue and let me eat. Good luck.

  3. Just as Moxie said, you have to decide what is OK with you and what you are willing to deal with to get there. I decided that stress at the table was not worth whatever it might achieve. With toddlers at least, sitting in the seat like a good boy is just a hill I am not willing to die on. Not right now, at any rate. My almost 3 year old is out of the high chair and in a normal chair, but he often wants to sit in my lap. I don’t allow that until I am finished with my meal. Once I am done eating, he is welcome to sit on me. That works for us, and he often eats a lot more and is more patient and still while sitting in my lap. It isn’t ideal, but really, it is one of the only times I still get to hold my baby. So I have decided to be OK with it.

  4. He eats well? Sooooooo jealous. Ok, owning my own toddler food issues here – my 23 month old is not in love with the whole balanced nutritional meal thing – nor does he loves his high chair, or his booster chair – I find meal times so stressful but am doing my best to encourage eating but without too much pressure. Binary choices sounds like a good idea, although I can imagine my wee cherub saying no to both options. Don’t know what to say except hang in there.

  5. I dunno. I too wanted to instill excellent table manners in my children. I too had a 20 month old, excellent eater, who suddenly wanted to sit in my lap to eat. I fought it and made her sit in her seat, said “if you aren’t hungry enough to eat in your own chair then you can just skip this meal.” And you know what? It was such a waste of my time and energy. I eventually relented and we enjoyed some fun times having lunch together, she ate so nicely on my lap. It was like having a super-close picnic. She is now 3.5, we had a friend over for dinner last night and it was like she was having dinner with the Queen herself. She even thanked him for bringing our dinner *without being prompted people*. There is so much time after 20 months, when children enter the land of reason, to teach proper table manners and just about anything else. I dearly wish I had spent less time battling my daughter as a toddler, she is capable of learning so much so quickly now and trying to teach a 20 month old anything is so pointless.

  6. My son is 21 months. He is happy to eat in his high chair (“eat” covering an enormous range from out-eating his father and I at one meal to eating nothing at another). Our issue is food dropping. We had an earlier phase of this that stopped when we removed the high chair tray and pulled him up to the table. Now if he decides he is ‘all done’, he just chucks his entire plate, contents and all, onto the floor. Sometimes this is our fault because he has made it clear (signing) that he is all done and we didn’t respond quickly enough. But sometimes there is no warning at all.We are trying to teach him that if he is all done he needs to push his plate into the centre of the table, and that has about a 60% success rate. When he chucks his food, he is immediately removed from the table and he has to help me clean up the mess. I’m not sure, though, whether or not this is helping matters, as he gets what he wants: he gets down and he gets our attention. Plus this is a child who likes picking things up.
    Anyway, all that to say, you have my sympathies. I am taking the approach that if we just stay consistent eventually things will get better, but it is hard to hang in there when yet another bowl of cereal goes onto the floor.

  7. This was the phase when we gave up eating out for about… um… a year? We couldn’t make it TO the appetizer, much less through it and to the meal. Then somewhere around 30 mths we tried again and… magic, we had a little diner again (although we were prepared with crayons, toy cars, etc for the meal – but none of that would have worked during the restless phase).

  8. So I’m going to be honest and share what we do even though it isn’t the best parenting strategy 🙂 Our almost 28-month old son has always been a “picky eater”. Didn’t start solids til well after a year old (strong gag reflex) and he is still nursing. At least a few nights a week back the summer before he turned 2, we let him eat in the living room either in my lap while watching something he was very engrossed in (like Elmo) or he could eat at his leisure and his food sat on the table. Some nights I could shovel a ton of food into his mouth while he was watching tv and he’d eat it all! Now at 28 months he prefers to sit at the table in “his chair”. I think we went along with the do what you have to do to maximize “x” and wait for him to outgrow.

  9. For us with our daughter it was just a phase. I can’t remember why we didn’t worry about it, but probably the sleep deprivation and tantrums of that period. She ate. On a lap. We lived with it.It ended by itself and then returned very occasionally for a week or so of a big developmental leap/ social change. Last observed at just-turned-four and not since.
    Sleep was the big deal. We weren’t laid back about this lap sitting eating things as much as comatose but walking.

  10. We have a 21.5 month DS here. Sitting on laps and even sitting down on our bottoms at meals is a battle that we’ve chosen *not* to pick. He eats very well and calmly and politely if he’s on someone’s lap or standing up on the seat of the chair. Do I like it? No. Do I want to enforce a rule? Yes. But I think it wouldn’t buy us much but headache and a mess on the floor of protest. I’m figuring he’ll come into a different phase of life where that rule really will be enforceable.

  11. Just a post to thank you for the super timely post, Moxie. Also, Karen’s comment about her 3 year old is parenting gold! Sometimes I just need a reminder that letting little things go (espcially with a 21 mos old) does not mean I am raising a manner-less brat.

  12. I am annoyed as all get-out at shenanigans at the table, so this is a battle I was willing to have with my kids.First of all, dinner with the family was a privilege at this. You can eat by yourself in your highchair at the counter (after the rest of us are finished) or you can sit at the table with the rest of us. Your choice, but we’re not tolerating [insert inappropriate behavior here] at the table.
    And I’m in the camp of One Warning, Then Your Plate Is Removed And You May Get Down.
    I know, aren’t you glad I’m not your mom?

  13. Parallel Lives! Same age; same chair! It kills me that we bought the trip trap because it is literally gathering dust against the wall in our dining room. No advice, just commiseration. If it’s any consolation, we went through this with our oldest. Eventually they do sit. It doesn’t last forever. Now the oldest and middle sit through the meal,eat like humans and even clear their plates when finished. I know it’s frustrating right now but it will end. Good luck!

  14. @Turia – I wouldn’t worry about it. It sounds like you’re doing exactly the right thing by asking him to clean up the mess he makes. That’s the way of dealing with most messes – don’t make a big deal about, just ask/work with the child to clean it up. That way they are learning cause and effect and how to clean up after themselves. Kids are always going to throw or dump or draw on something. It happens.My kids sit at their boosters and have reasonably good table manners, but my eldest (almost 5) has never been that interested in eating and he tends to shovel his food in and jump down. We don’t have family meals most of the time, but I’ve started trying to have him sit for a minute or two after he finishes to teach him sitting at the table. He really doesn’t enjoy table time conversation, so that’s not a distraction. I wonder when I’ll be able to take him to a restaurant. Part of me wishes I’d started doing that regularly when they were younger, but the lazy part of me thinks it wasn’t worth the struggle. (Mostly I feel like, if I’m going to pay money to eat out, I’m going to enjoy it. Hence, no kids.)

  15. Ugh. The lap thing is where we are now with our 29-month old. I’m pregnant and I get little enough time to do things without being touched, poked, prodded, climbed on, etc., and so I enforce this rule *for myself* pretty firmly (when Mama’s done eating you can have huggies/sit on her lap). But I also don’t object if my husband wants/is willing to let her sit on him. She’s usually “done” with dinner, assuming she’s eaten much of anything, in about half the time he is (and a quarter of the time it takes me to finish a meal). I also try to give her the choice of sitting with us at the table or getting down and playing. Typically, she’ll want neither, and I’ll finish my meal with a toddler whining and clutching my leg. Or, we’ll buckle her in the seat, and she’ll scream and cause havoc the entire time. It seriously stinks and is one of my least favorite two-year-old phases. And not to be be pessimistic, but this has been going on since she was about 22 months (in fact, in those days, she’d say she wanted to sit with Papa, and then as soon as he put her on his lap, would slide off and run to me. Tricky). So it might be a longer phase than the OP is expecting. Still, I’m hopeful she’ll eat more and sit longer, or at least be willing to just go play by herself, the older she gets. And I try to enforce other table manner rules (no feet on the table is a big one for us) to keep the idea going that we actually DO have them.

  16. My daughter (23 months) is always dragging along at the bottom of the weight curve, so our priority is more to get food into her by any means, rather than focus on specific table manners. At this point she is fairly capable of sitting at a table and eating, but some days she needs to get up and roam around the room, and come back for little bites every minute. Or on evenings when she is tired, I will admit to sitting on the bed and watching Yo Gabba Gabba with her and popping little bits of food in her mouth, which she obediently chews. For now, it’s all good. At least she’s moved past the throwing the plate on the floor stage!

  17. I love Moxie’s “goals and temperament” phrase. Mine were different, and we actually moved towards ‘snacks’ rather than meals i.e. the snacks were really mini-meals spaced throughout the day. Some were eaten at the park, and some in the house. During the snack you needed to be sitting down somewhere. When it was just me home with the kids during the day, I read stories. In the evening (actually late afternoon) when my husband was home, we sat together and had a cup of tea and something small with the kids, and ate our meal separately after the kids were in bed. The kids were sitting in their chairs, but it was pretty low key, and did not need to last very long.(Incidentally, my kids are now 7 and 4 and we have eaten with them for about a year now. I am from the UK and live in the US. ‘High tea’ at 5.30/6pm for kids is much more common in the UK, with most of the adults we know not eating supper until 7.30-8.30pm. In the US, I felt ever so slightly judged about not eating “as a family.” Yet – once the 20 month stage was over! – both “high tea” with the kids and my supper with my husband were my two favorite times of day.)
    I should probably disclose that my kids table skills are not the best yet. The meal time conversation can be pleasant, and they are reasonable eaters. They use forks, but the 7 year old definitely can’t use a knife as well as his peers.

  18. @Lucy – I’ve felt guilty as well about the no family meal, but I think I’ll start calling it high tea. That seems good to me for very small children. My kids need to be in bed early, so they need to eat their dinner early, and it was too early for us to have dinner – that’s how we started with our “tea”. Sometimes we adults eat when they are still awake, and the little one wanders back to eat with us/ from our plates. I think all of this will shift naturally as they go to bed later and we can eat later. We sometimes manage to eat together, which is nice. But kids needn’t eat with adults to learn basic table manners, and I think basic is good enough in the pre-k set (no feet on the table, no throwing/playing with food, forks, please and thank you, no shouting).

  19. I remember that time. We had a little child’s table and if she wanted to, she could have her meal at it. I would just sit by her. I liked it because she was still sitting at a table to eat. My only peeve is children walking around the house with food. Besides mess, I didn’t want to worry about her choking where I couldn’t see her. The rule was, all food at a table…but it didn’t have to be the big table. Hope this helps. Yes, it’s just a phase, and whatever helps mothers grin and bear it is okay in my book. DD was not a lap sitter, so I can’t even imagine her wanting to eat on my lap.

  20. PS, by child’s table I just meant one of those child-sized tables with matching chairs for doing art, having tea parties, and so on. I just let her use it for meals as needed, as well as snacks.

  21. I so like remembering the part where just because we’re ready for a particular ability or skill to kick in (good table manners, getting dressed alone, saying hello to grown-ups and answering questions, participating at school) does not mean our children are. It has helped me to think of the gap between our readinesses as a training time – they get to learn our expectations and start moving towards them, and I get to learn how to live with children who don’t meet my expectations. Not wanting to yell all the time is a good goal for me so I think of it as practicing how to be zen with disappointment. Thanks Moxie for this reminder about food for toddlers, but mostly about life in the in-betweens, which appears to be 80% of parenting to me… And of course the beauty of having more than one child is realizing that 80% of the time, my expectations the first time were ludicrous. ARGH. Why can’t we come to parenting experienced???

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