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I have a problem with my two-and-a-half year old, Frank.
He won't eat dinner because he's too busy running around and then he's melting down because he's "hangry" at bedtime. I am afraid he won't sleep well because he's too hungry but then he can't decide what to eat and bedtime just gets pushed later and later.
It's often 8:30 or 9 before he's in bed and then it takes a while for him to settle down and fall asleep. I know the dinner dishes are waiting for me and I can't help but get impatient and snap at him sometimes.
What should I do? I hate yelling at him but this routine is driving me crazy!
PS My six-month-old, Lily, seems to be developing similar tendencies! She will often take only a couple of ounces of milk when she wakes up in the morning, so then I try to feed her again before her nap so she'll sleep well, but often she'll only take an ounce, reluctantly, so then I feel like I ought to feed her again as soon as she wakes up but then she's not very hungry again... I feel like I'm feeding her constantly!
I see this pattern all too often in my clients, whether the child is 4 months, 4 years, or even older.
There's a couple of issues here.
The first one, and by far the most important, is about the mindset of the parent. Sarah is taking responsibility for her child's eating.
Guess what parents? Kids are the ones responsible for their eating. The only ones. Whether or not Frank eats is up to Frank, not Sarah. As much as she may hate that fact.
I get it. One of my children was a terrible eater, just refused to eat any solid food for the first year of her life, and took less and less milk from the bottle while I was at work (and didn't nurse during the night). The doctor was concerned about her failure to gain weight, and that, of course, scared me.
But I still couldn't force her to eat. As much as I wanted to.
(After her first birthday, she slowly, reluctantly began to eat a small number of foods and today is a healthy, skinny 9-year-old who still has a limited palate but does not have an eating disorder. Skinny is fine, healthy, even.)
You can't force children to eat. And the more you try, the more they refuse.
Even now, my 9 year old has meltdowns when she gets hungry.
And you know what helped? Eliminating snacks. Letting her get hungry for meals. Believing that she wouldn't starve. That it wasn't the end of the world for to have a meltdown.
It sounds totally counterintuitive, but the more we cater to our children's capricious appetites, the worse their appetites get. Even though the process of eliminating snacks totally sucks. Many a meltdown. But there was no other way to get through that particular river of misery. (Rather like teaching a child to self-soothe. There's no way to teach it. They just have to learn it.)
Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, says that we adults control the what (is offered) and the when (timing) of meals, and children control the if (they eat) and the how much.
She points out that all humans have a genetic setpoint for weight that is very hard to change. Some children were born to be thin and some children were born to be stocky. But trying to control our children's eating will only make the skinny ones skinnier and the heavy ones, heavier. (Cutting down on junk food is healthy for everyone, however, as is increasing exercise. Both can help manage weight problems in overweight children. Without ever commenting to the children that it's about weight.)
As soon as our children realize that their parents have a vested interest in how much they eat, they exploit that power. They can't help it. It's children's job to explore boundaries and understand what pushes their parents' buttons.
There's only one way to stop it.
Drop the rope.
Stop caring about how much your child eats. Stop thinking you can control it, and that they are "sure" to have a sleep problem if they don't eat.
Set some boundaries and let your children explore them. Let them have tantrums. Trust that the world won't come to an end if they are hungry for a night. In fact, the only way to get them to eat better is to let them experience hunger and not solve the problem for them until the next scheduled mealtime.
Here's what this looks like in practical terms. Sarah decides what is served for dinner. Ideally, she includes at least one thing that Frank likes... but perhaps serves a first course of the things that she most wants him to eat. So if he loves mac n cheese and Sarah is willing to serve that, she serves a first course of chicken and vegetables. He's more likely to eat the chicken and vegetables when he's more hungry. After he's eaten some of that, she serves the mac n cheese. She lets him have as much or as little as he likes, without comment. There is no praise for eating a lot nor scolding for eating a little. They sit and eat together and talk cheerfully about other things.
Sarah decides ahead of time if dessert will be served and if so, what it will be. She serves it with dinner or at the very least, makes dessert non-contingent on eating the rest of the meal. There is no "reward" for eating a "good" dinner. Because Sarah doesn't care if Frank eats or not, remember?
When Frank gets up from the table, after one warning, "Frank, remember, if you get up, the meal will be over," the meal is over. Sarah doesn't make a big deal about this. She just says, kindly, "Since you are up from the table, I see you are done eating." She takes the plate away.
Frank has a meltdown. Sarah sits patiently and waits. When the meltdown is over, she says sympathetically, "you're frustrated that the meal is over. You wish there was more food." She doesn't argue with his feelings or try to convince him to feel differently. She lets him feel his feelings. She recognizes that big feelings aren't a problem. She also knows that he isn't that hungry, or he would have eaten, and that he certainly won't starve before morning. She remembers that she occasionally goes to bed a bit hungry and still sleeps well.
If bedtime is more than 2 hours after dinnertime, Sarah may decide to offer a bedtime snack. If so, she decides whether or not to offer a snack as well as what the snack is. Ideally it is something healthy (so as not to convince Frank to skip dinner and wait for the bedtime snack). It is definitely not a food that is designed to entice him to eat, like ice cream. She offers it to Frank in his chair at the table. If he gets up from the table, the snack is over.
Frank may have another meltdown. Sarah waits patiently. Then it's bedtime. If Frank cries that he is hungry, Sarah reminds him that they can have a delicious breakfast together in the morning. She doesn't see his feelings or even his possible hunger as a problem.
In the morning, Sarah continues to maintain clear boundaries. She invites Frank to the table for breakfast. She has chosen to serve a nutritious meal with several items to choose from. She sits with Frank while he eats breakfast and reminds him that this will be all the food that is served for breakfast. They have a pleasant chat. When he gets up from the table to play, she reminds him again that this is it for breakfast, is he sure that his belly is full? The next time he gets up, she quietly takes his plate away.
Sarah plans the next eating opportunity, either a healthy snack 2-3 hours later, or lunch. She does not pack processed carbohydrates (squeezable fruit pouches, Goldfish crackers, dry cereal) for him to graze mindlessly on in the car or stroller as she knows these will dull his appetite for healthy food at lunch. If he complains of hunger mid-morning, she makes sympathetic noises and promises lunch is only an hour away.
Rinse and repeat.
After just two to three days of this, Frank is used to the new routine. Meals are pleasant and hunger meltdowns are much less frequent.
The other issue at play in this letter is that the child is overtired. Overtired children don't eat well.
Rest assured, they don't starve. They just make up for it in the morning. Or next Tuesday. Toddlers and preschoolers are famously capricious eaters. They are said to "live on air." But unless your healthcare provider has told you that your child has a growth or feeding disorder, you don't have to worry.
The best cure for this is sleep. So offer a meal or snack and if your child turns up his nose at it, start bedtime. Don't cave when they beg for food 15 minutes later. My then-four-year-old didn't eat dinner for a year. I did not offer a bedtime snack. I just put her to bed at 6 pm. She's alive and well to this day.
And as for six-month-old Lily? The same rules apply, even if all the meals and snacks consist of milk. Stop offering snacks. Every three hours should be sufficient after the first three months (in the NICU, babies never eat more often than every 3 hours) and some babies actually eat and sleep better with every-four-hour feeding schedules. Both of my children did.
Infants don't need to eat when they wake up and when they fall asleep with every nap. If you like to offer more often and it's working for your family, great. But if you are struggling with short naps, night wakings, and poor feedings... try consolidating those short feedings.
Picky eating and overtiredness often go hand in hand. But they are both solveable problems. And your family will be so much happier when you have eliminated both.
If your family is dealing with picky eating and sleep issues, set up a free consult and find out how your family can be sleeping better in two weeks or less, guaranteed.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.