Why eating with distractions is unhelpful for fussy eaters
Many parents’ despair as their child will only eat, or only eat well if distracted by a screen. It’s become a growing problem and is especially common when children are fussy eaters.
However, although it may seem impossible, removing the distractions is important.
If you are a parent who does NOT use a screen, you may still find some of the advice is useful. Especially in the ‘what you can do’ section.
Or, you may be a parent who doesn’t use a screen, but uses other distractions like reading a book or consistently ‘dancing on tables’ to help a child to eat. In which case – also helpful 🙂
I was shocked when a parent first told me that Plunket (NZ early childhood support group) had advised them to put their then two, year old daughter in front of a video to help her to eat better.
Since then, I have heard this advice frequently given to parents when their child is struggling to eat.
Admittedly, it can be almost a magic wand solution, for some children who are really challenged around food. With a screen, they go from hardly eating to being able to accept both more volume and more food.
So, what’s not to love? Why is eating with distractions such a no-go?
If we have a child who is super challenged around food, eating with distractions can be a short-term relief.
Suddenly food is less stressful, they eat more, they are often less fussy about what is on the plate. So why not?
1. Feeding. Distractions, especially for younger children often leads to us having to spoon feed. Or extends the length of time we are needing to do this.
I speak to many parents who find they are stuck shovelling the food into the mouth of their four, year old, (or, eleven-year-old,) so they accept what has been served.
Teaching our child to eat widely and well in the long term is done by us removing ourselves from the feeding relationship and empowering our child to learn to eat for themselves. Hand feeding is the opposite! It also introduces all sorts of other challenges.
2. Learning. Eating with distractions prevents our child from learning. They are not looking at the food properly and they are often not even really tasting it.
Not being focused on food enables us to switch off some of the usual cues around eating. We are less likely to focus on the look, the smell, the taste, or the texture of the food if our attention is elsewhere.
I know there will be parents reading this whose eyes are lighting up right now, wondering if this is the magic bullet they have been searching for for months or even years!
The answer is a resounding no. Yes, your child may eat more widely in the short term, but little learning is happening.
Once the distraction is removed, you are back at square one. In fact, sometimes worse off, as you have now missed all those weeks, years of learning.
Eating with distractions also bypasses many of our internal cues. If we, as an adult, eat in front of the TV or while scrolling on the phone, it is likely that we will inadvertently eat things without total awareness.
Studies show that we frequently lose track of what we’ve eaten – especially in terms of volume – when we are distracted. If that is happening for our child, they are not able to learn to notice internal cues that tell them when they have eaten enough, for example.
Even chewing properly, especially for children, can be interrupted when distracted. They may not be manipulating food in their mouths well or be more likely to swallow things without fully chewing things first.
3. Social. The older our child becomes, the more eating with distractions becomes a habit. It can even become a necessity.
Not being able to eat socially without distractions introduces new challenges for them and for us. What happens if they cannot manage kindy or school lunches without a distraction, or a party or meal at a relatives?
For some, this may seem like it’s far-fetched, but I have spoken to parents who have become stuck in this trap and are finding it very difficult to extricate themselves!
4. Underlying challenges. If our child has underlying reasons for not being able to eat widely and well, like sensory sensitivities, using distractions to feed will not be addressing those additional challenges.
For many challenges like anxiety, sensory sensitivity, or oral motor issues, that impact upon eating, the sooner we address them the easier they are to resolve, and the less they become determinably associated with the eating.
If you are currently using distractions to feed your child, it’s important to appreciate that it’s not a reflection on your parenting. You may not have even considered that it’s a problem.
We most likely begin without even thinking about any long-term consequences. We don’t know what we don’t know.
We may hand our phone or the tablet to a complaining child one day and the whining stops, the eating happens, and it seems like the perfect short-term solution.
Or, at the end of a long day it’s lovely to watch a bit of TV when having dinner so it’s a family habit and our child just follows on.
If you are in this situation and you know deep down that your child would not be able to eat if the distractions were removed then do not panic.
How can we remove screens?
1. Tackle challenges. If there is an underlying reason your child is unable to eat, like sensory sensitivities, then addressing those is always a great first step (new course coming soon tackling this very issue!).
2. Eat together. I know this is something we are all bashed over the head with but hear me out on this one regarding distractions!
If our child is eating alone and we remove their ‘entertainment’ it’s going to be a big change and one that is probably not positive.
If we replace the distraction with a big dose of mum or dad, it’s a far easier transition. Having your closest connection spending quality time with you can often be all that is needed.
Time-poor parents don’t panic! It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. Just spending ten minutes chatting and helping with the initial transition away from screens may make it easier than anticipated.
3. Change it up. Children are generally routine driven, and screens have often become an integral part of the eating experience.
Shaking up the routine can make it easier to remove the screens initially. Rather than eating in the same spot, arranging a picnic or moving to a different room, for example, can help.
4. Give it a go. I have spoken to many parents who have a child who appears totally dependent on a screen to eat, but when it is removed, actually things are not as difficult as the parent expected.
Or, they are upset for a meal or two and then move on!
5. Gradually remove. For some families gently having less and less time in front of the screen while eating is best.
This can be done by not starting the meal with the screen on or in front of our child. Perhaps we start the meal by chatting first. Or, maybe near the end of the meal we take the screen away and finish with something fun and interactive.
Initially another distraction could be a gentle segue from the screen. Replacing the screen with a book, for example, provides a distraction but one that is different and it provides a break from the screen but without totally removing distractions.
Remember, like most things, the initial few days of a change are generally the most difficult and if we are firm but consistent, we CAN implement new rules and new routines.
I’m curious, have you ever been told to use distractions? And if so, by whom?
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/