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Answers from Experts

Q: Mealtimes always seem like such a struggle with my kids. It takes forever to get them to sit at the table. Once they are at the table, they are constantly hanging off their chairs or get up and roam around. What can I do to get my kids to sit down and actually eat their food?

A: This is a common problem with young children. Toddlers and preschoolers are usually very active, energetic, and curious about their surroundings. There are several things you can do to help improve your children’s behavior and make mealtime positive and fun. For example, you can have your children help out with making the meal or setting the table. When it’s time to eat, have the entire family sit down to eat.  If an adult is up walking around, your children may be learning that walking around during dinner time is okay.

Remove all distractions. This includes the TV, cell phones, tablets, or other things that take away your child’s attention. Encourage conversation to keep your child focused on what is happening around the table. If possible, try to have dinner around the same time each night and establish a routine both before and after dinner. Predictability can help your children’s behavior improve because they will know what to expect each night.

Use of praise can also improve mealtime behavior. For example, if your children sit down for five seconds and take one bite, praise that. If your children are restless but still sitting and eating, praise that. The more praise you provide for the good mealtime behaviors, the more likely it is that your children will start sitting for longer amounts of time during the meal. If only one of your children is showing the correct behavior, praise that child. Often praising one child may result in better behavior from the other children because they want praise too. If your children get up, provide reminders about the expected behavior and give praise when they follow your directions.

Q: I don’t want to go to restaurants because my kids won’t sit and eat. They end up distracting everyone else in the restaurant. People look at me like I should control my children but I don’t know what to do.

A: Meals in restaurants are a little different than meals at home. At restaurants, your child has to sit longer and wait for the food to arrive. So, at home you want to remove distractions, but at restaurants distractions can be a good idea. Books, toys, or other things your child likes to play with can be used. Many restaurants provide coloring books and crayons for kids for this reason. If you establish good mealtime behavior at home, it will likely improve in restaurants too.

Q: My daughter refuses to go to sleep at bedtime. How can I help her relax and get to sleep?

A: Establishing a bedtime routine is very important. This routine includes what your child does before bed and where your child sleeps at night. It may be helpful for the routine to include things that help your child relax, such as reading a story. Once you decide on the activities for the routine, talk about it with your child. Some parents like to make the routine into a song and sing it with the child. For example, you can sing, “After you take a bath, we’re going to put your PJs on, brush your teeth, get you in your bed, read a story, and then it’s time for sleep!” Your child may try to push the limits and get a “few more minutes” of awake time before sleeping, but do not allow this. At the end of the routine, leave your child to sleep. By creating a bedtime routine and sticking with it consistently, your child knows exactly when and where she should be sleeping.

Q: My son does not like to wake up in the mornings. He is so slow to get ready. Sometimes it can take 30-45 minutes just to wake him up and get him dressed. I have to get myself ready to go to work on top of that. How can I help him be more independent and do some things by himself in the mornings?

A: There are a couple of things to consider with your son. First, ask yourself whether he’s getting enough sleep at night. He may need to go to sleep earlier to make mornings easier and better. Second, ask yourself whether he’s able to do what you are asking. We have to consider our child’s age and development when asking him to do things. Sometimes an inability to do something is confused with a refusal.

Finally, if you think your child is getting enough sleep and is able to do what you tell him to do, it may help to set a morning routine. When thinking about the routine, identify things that must be done in the morning. Also, think about what can be done the night before to help your morning routine go smoothly. For instance, you can save time by having your child take baths at night as opposed to in the morning and having his clothes already picked out. For more information on this and to create your own morning routine, click here. If your child refuses to follow the morning routine, a consequence should be used. Click here for more information on consequences for following or not following routines and rules.

Q: Sometimes it’s hard to get my daughter to stop any activity. This is true especially if she is having fun. She screams and cries every time I tell her it’s time to stop playing so that we can do something else like take a bath. What can I do to keep her from getting upset but make her understand we need to do something else?

A: If you know a transition is coming, like you need to go to the grocery store or it’s almost time for dinner, give your child at least a 5-minute warning that she will need to stop what she is doing and do something else. You can also give another warning when 3 minutes are remaining and again when 1 minute is remaining. It’s important to remember that if children are engaged in something, especially if it’s fun, they will need a heads-up before moving to an activity that’s not so fun for them. Having a routine also helps make transitions easier for children. For more information about routines, click here.