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Solutions for Toddler Feeding Problems

Experts offer tips for parents of picky eaters.

Dilemma: How should I handle a 3-year-old who refuses to eat dinner nearly every night and would rather feed the food to the dog?

Solution: "Playing with food is normal, and fun for a kid," Neville says. When it happens on a regular basis, something else may be at work, however.

Tuckered-out toddlers may not be particularly hungry for the evening meal, and would rather share their food with the dog.

Or, your child could be lobbing food to get a rise out of you. 

"Toddlers test everything out -- including your patience," Delmonico says.

Solve this toddler feeding problem by staying cool while sending your child the signal that mealtime is for eating, and not so much for playing. Or for feeding Fido. 

"Each time your child feeds the dog or throws food on the floor, calmly remove him from his high chair," says Shu. "If he indicates he wants to eat, put him back in. After taking him out a couple of times, that meal is over."

Of course, removing the dog from the room at mealtimes will reduce a toddler's temptation, too.

Dilemma: My little one wants to feed himself. When is it OK to give children cups and utensils?

Solution: Probably earlier than you think.

You can give children a plastic-coated baby spoon to hold when you start feeding them solids, and they can handle a sippy cup with water, infant formula, or breast milk between 6-9 months old, Shu says.

Toddler forks with blunt tines come later. "Most children can use a fork by 3 to 4 years of age," says Shu. 

Don't expect much food or drink to actually get into your toddler's mouth at first. Prepare yourself for messy mealtimes, but don't let that deter you from letting your toddler try to self-feed.

"Children learn by imitation and they need to practice self-feeding," Neville says.

Dilemma: I have a 3-year-old who still wants to be fed like a baby. What should I do?

Solution: "Toddlers are more likely to feed themselves when they see others doing the same," Shu says. As much as possible, sit at the table together as a family so that your toddler can imitate your behavior. 

If your child has been feeding himself and stopped, there could be a reason, such as a younger sibling that's getting the attention your toddler desires, says Neville.

Whatever the reason, Neville cautions against getting into a battle of wills over toddler eating issues. Here are some tricks that may encourage self-feeding:

  • Provide finger foods that they can manage to get into their mouths all by themselves. 
  • Use a favorite dish and cup.

"If you know your child is capable of self-feeding, give him the food and the utensils and just let him be, and chances are he'll come around," Delmonico says. 

Shu says some children have developmental delays that prevent them from feeding themselves. Talk with your pediatrician about your concerns.

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