Tomorrow is Thanksgiving which means the large majority of us will be trying to sit for an extended period of time with our kids at a table. Unfortunately, getting Miley Cyrus to keep her tongue in her mouth would be easier than making most toddlers stay seated. Mazzy, for instance, has made her disdain for sitting at a table apparent through numerous high-chair-suicide-dive attempts.
For reasons I cannot explain (maybe babies were switched at the hospital?), food is not enough to keep my child entertained. Mazzy finds eating boring and would rather be doing just about anything else.
So. In the interest of a happy Thanksgiving, I had no choice but to devise a rope and duct tape strategy. But just as I was about to leave for the hardware store, I realized I had one other option.
Advice from Dr. B!
If you're new to Mommy Shorts and haven't experienced the expert of advice of Dr. B (aka my sister), you are in for a treat.
Toddlers are known for their short attention spans, high activity levels, and impulsivity. They love testing boundaries, especially the word “no,” throwing objects, and playing with their food. By nature, toddlers are challenging dinner guests so if you want your toddler to stay seated for an extended meal like Thanksgiving, you need to plan ahead and come prepared.
1. Measure your child’s attention span: Prior to dinner, observe your child playing independently and track how many seconds or minutes he/she plays with one toy before moving on to another one. The key word here is 'independently', meaning without your support or guidance. If your child plays with an object for 2 minutes, expect your child to need a switch in activities every 2 minutes at the table. If your child plays with a toy for 5 minutes, consider yourself lucky.
2. Observe the types of toys that hold your child’s attention best: Toddlers usually like toys that engage their senses and satisfy their curiosity with cause and effect relationships (e.g., toys that he/she can bang together, throw, shake, squeeze, connect, open and close, push and pull, or stack and knock down). Make note of all toys that are travel sized and fall into this category.
3. Create a special travel bag of fun and interesting items: Pack a small bag with your child’s favorite travel size toys and other novel items that have a cause and effect element. Keep these items special by limiting access to times when you are away from home. You can purchase new toys, use household objects, or items that are already in your handbag. Ideas include a small change purse, a key chain, a compact mirror, paper and crayons, yarn, a pill box, a small flash light, clothes pins, small paper cups to stack, stickers or post-its, etc. Although you will be able use some items more than once, it is best to bring at least 10 small items.
TIP: Party stores (like Party City) are great places to buy interesting, colorful, interactive, and inexpensive small toys that wind up, turn, light up, or spin at the press of a button.
4. Plan a course of action: The most difficult times for your child will probably be (1) the time between sitting down at the table and waiting for the food to be served and (2) after your child is finished eating (and the rest of the table is still eating). Make sure to save special items that your child typically can sit with for an extended period for these more challenging times.
5. Limit access and use the element of surprise: Start the evening by giving your child one toy at a time, selecting the toy for your child (without showing him/her the options), and try to switch items just before your child loses interest (unless they resist the switch). Usually parents wait until their child gets bored of playing with something before introducing something new but its better to try to switch activities before your child loses interest to build his/her attention span and prevent the item from losing its novelty. After introducing all the items once, pair a few items together or let your child choose. Encourage creativity and model new ways to play with the items if necessary.
6. Serve food strategically: Food can be a great way to keep your child occupied IF he/she is hungry. Don’t take any chances. Distribute food slowly in very small portions to draw out the eating part of the meal. Bring your child’s favorite drinks and food as back-up if you’re not sure he/she will like the food served.
7. Give your child frequent positive attention and opportunities to socialize: Make sure to positively attend to your child without placing too many demands on him/her (which he/she may want to avoid by getting up from the table). Ask questions he/she knows the answer to, describe what he/she is playing with, praise him/her for sitting and playing nicely at the table, and give him/her opportunities to entertain your guests. For older toddlers, teach rules for sitting at the table and praise and reward him/her for following the rules. Most toddlers need direct verbal or physical attention (i.e., talking, helping, touching, bouncing) at least one time per minute for every year of their age to maximize sitting time.
8. Take planned breaks from sitting: Toddlers like to move so get up a few times during the meal to help your child feel less antsy. Plan a walk to the bathroom before eating and a brief walk or an opportunity to sit on your lap (and bounce) after the meal. Your toddler will be more likely to sit back down at the table without protest if you provide opportunities for movement and exploration on your terms before your child begins to make requests to get up.
9. Use media devices as a last resort: When all else fails, use media devices such as smart phones or electronic games. Although these devices should be used in moderation with toddlers (if at all), this would be the time to use them since your need for your child to be quietly occupied is greater than his/her actual capacity to sit still.
And last but not least, try to enjoy your dinner!
— Dr. B