It is not my first post about screens at mealtimes but as I am rereading my older article I feel that I need to dive deeper into the “why” behind using screens. Today I would like to invite you to explore the motives behind this common feeding strategy. In a zero-judgment way, I promise.
It is a long post, so bear with me, but I think it is really important to talk about the “why”. Otherwise, it is too easy to blame parents for allowing distractions at meals. And who needs more of that?
The reality is, there is a reason why you decided to bring an iPad to the dinner table and I am absolutely positive it is a valid one.
The more I work with parents, the more I realize that using screens is often not the primary cause of feeding problems. Mealtime distractions are a coping mechanism that helps us, parents, deal with an existing feeding problem, whether perceived or real.
Perceived feeding issues are frustrating and worrisome eating behaviors, like fear of new foods and sudden drops in appetite in toddlers or spoon refusal in babies. What many parents do not know about is that they are absolutely normal for certain ages and should be expected.
A side note: If your child eats in the same way with or without a screen, you do not even need to finish reading this article. But if your child’s eating changes dramatically the moment the screen is removed, we need to look into WHY it has become a necessity at mealtimes.
Here are three big reasons for screens at meals:
1/ To help kids cope with heightened sensitivity to sensory properties of food and anxiety.
Some kids are more attuned to the sensory properties of food. They may also get very anxious around new or less liked food. If your little one is sensitive to certain smells or textures, eating with distractions may help numb their senses and reduce their anxiety enough to chew and swallow without feeling much.
A common real-life scenario is when a child eats “challenging” foods like veggies, protein, etc with the screen on. But once it’s off, he refuses to eat or sticks only to the favorite starchy options.
This could be because a screen numbs the child’s senses to some degree. So when the screen is out, all the smells and flavors are suddenly much bigger and scarier.
The downside of it, of course, is that kids do not LEARN to deal with the challenging food when they are distracted.
They need to see, smell, and feel the food multiple times before they finally accept it. And some kids require a more structured, step-by-step approach implemented with a professional by their side.
With a screen in front of them, they may not fully appreciate the different qualities of food and bypass all the important exploratory steps that ultimately lead to a more varied diet.
And even without sensory difficulties to complicate feeding, many kids go through the neophobic stage
, where they naturally fear new food. And in this case, they also need to “meet” the new food many times before finally making friends with it.
Often, in this scenario, kids end up being spoon-fed for longer than needed, because they refuse to self-feed and even touch food that bothers them.
2/ To help kids eat more.
Let’s meet Mike. He used to be a good eater, but since Mike turned 1, his eating has become erratic. The dad noticed that for as long as the cartoon was on, little Mike was eating his dinner. The parents were thrilled to see how he finished his plate and even asked for seconds!
But on those occasions when they had no access to the screen, Mike barely ate anything at meals. He was done after just two bites and this made mom and dad very anxious. They were sure he was not getting enough calories!
It is very normal for toddlers to start eating dramatically less at meals and snacks as their growth slows down and caloric needs decrease. But this sudden change in eating can be very alarming. In many cases, this typical milestone is seen as a problem and it’s enough to prompt parents to try to fix it with the help of the screen.
Antsy toddlers are also notorious for rebelling against seated mealtimes. They prefer to run, jump and play. In this case, screens often come in as a solution to keep them in place and get some calories in.
In rarer cases, kids suddenly start eating dramatically less because of pain caused by teething or medical conditions like a food allergy or gastrointestinal conditions.
The thing is, mealtime distractions do a really good job of, well, distracting. 🙂 And while we may be happy with the amounts your little ones eat, they are not listening to their body to tell them when he has had enough. And this can be a problem as kids grow up and struggle to self-regulate how much they need to eat.
And, of course, if there is an organic problem behind your child’s lower appetite, it needs investigation and treatment, not a band-aid solution.
3/ To have sanity-saving mess-free and fuss-free meals.
Let’s admit it, it is exhausting to clean after our cute little monsters multiple times a day and the things they do with food can be quite gross.
Smearing potato puree all over the high chair tray? Ketchup all over the face, belly and under toenails? Bolognese leftovers behind the ears discovered 2 days later? Check, check and check.
So hang on there. It will not be always like this, I promise. In a few short years, you will be able to actually finish a sentence when attempting a dinnertime conversation and will not have to clean the kitchen floor, walls and ceiling after each mealtime. You are almost there.
Sometimes, mealtime misbehavior can be a way for kids to rebel against the mealtime rules. So if you notice more disruptive behavior than usual, it makes sense to troubleshoot your feeding strategy.
You may need to be extra mindful when setting the structure and limits around mealtimes while allowing kids to be responsible for the amounts they choose to eat from what you offer.
What helps if you are ready to let go of screens at mealtimes:
First and foremost, understand WHY your child needs a screen at mealtimes. Or why YOU need your child to have a screen at mealtimes. Is there anxiety? Sensory hypersensitivity? Fear of your child losing weight? Or do you need to get your child to stay seated?
And only after that, consider making a few changes to support your child in the areas where the real issues are masked by the use of screens.
It is important not to ban screens at mealtimes right away, especially if your child is used to eating this way. You need a gentle, child-centered and gradual approach to let go of this mealtime habit.
The good news is that by doing so, you not only get a chance to understand what problems this band-aid has been covering, but also build a foundation for positive stress-free (and distraction-free) mealtimes.
Below are a few suggestions on what you can do. You may need only some of them, depending on your “why” behind using screens at mealtimes. It is not a complete list, by any means, as every feeding situation is different.
- learn about age-appropriate mealtime behaviors and eating patterns and adjust your expectations accordingly.
- always include 1-2 safe foods in every meal and snack.
- heavily rely on meal and snack schedule. It is your best ally in transitioning to screen-free meals. Serve only water between meals and snacks.
- eat together whenever possible, serve food family style.
- experiment with deconstructed meals.
- especially at the beginning, serve your child’s favorite food more often.
- allow lots of food play in between meals and snacks, including taste tests.
- do whatever it takes to minimize the mealtime anxiety. It can be placing the food that bothers your child on the other side of the table or stopping serving it for some time.
- make meals more exciting like serving picnics on the floor or special meals with candles.
- help your child stay still with special OT tricks like this wobble cushion.
- encourage self-feeding even if it leads to more messes. Mess=sensory experience=better eating.
- maximize snack nutrition so you are not so worried if your child skips dinner.
- establish a pre-meal routine to let the wiggles out. Maybe you will find out that dancing, running around or a few jumping jacks before dinner help your little one focus better on eating? Here is a great article about pre-dinner yoga for kids.
- explore potential underlying issues if your child gags and vomits frequently or is extremely anxious, or complains of any physical discomfort at mealtimes. Talk to your doctor about getting referrals to other specialists.
- when you are ready to let go of screens, start very small. Just a few screen-free minutes at the beginning of each meal may be plenty at the beginning. Use a timer if you need it.
Letting go off screens at mealtimes can be scary both for kids and parents. A sudden change may make your child’s eating much worse. You need to have a good understanding of the reasons behind this habit in order to help your child enjoy distraction-free meals.
Good luck and let me know how it goes!