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Ask Dr. Sears: Table Manners for Toddlers

Q. Is a 15-month-old too young to comprehend good table manners? I'm wondering if it would it be out of line to help a good friend (who is fairly inattentive to her child's messy behavior) teach her child manners when they're visiting my home or out in public places.

A.
It sounds like your biggest concern is about your friend's child making a mess at your home. My wife and I have raised eight children (all were messy eaters in their own right), and with each subsequent child we became less rigorous in our insistence on table manners. We realized that while it can be a nuisance at times, playing with food is a normal and quite healthy developmental stage for a child. And there's actually a developmental milestone that prompts toddlers to treat their food as their favorite toy. At about one year old, babies enjoy eating by using their newly-developed pincer grasp, which is the ability to use their thumb and forefinger to pick up tiny morsels of food. (In fact, as I'm reading your question, I'm watching my 14-month-old grandchild, Thomas, pick up and mouth blueberries one at a time!)

I also believe toddlers love dropping and flinging food for two reasons: They enjoy the effect of watching the things they throw fly from their hands, as well as the effect their antics have on the neat freaks around them. It's all part of their infantile perception of eating being fun. No matter how long ago it was, every parent remembers those scenes of kitchen carnage: mashed-pea mustaches, pieces of sticky squished fruit on the floor beneath the high chair. That said, you shouldn't have to resign yourself to housecleaning duties every time your friend and her baby drops in. Here's how you can (politely!) encourage less of a mess at your house, and perhaps both mom and child may pick up a few pointers to can use in their own home:

Offer one bite at a time. Fill your plate with pieces of fruit, veggies, or other cut-up morsels of food and sit next to the child. Offer him one tiny bite at a time. When the child finishes that bite, offer another. Sitting a toddler down to his own plateful of food is inviting a mess.

Laughter is messy medicine. Babies are born clowns, and this especially holds true at the dinner table. Laughing at baby's messes will only invite an unwanted encore. If there are older children around, they'll often enjoy (and encourage) baby's messy eating antics because they don't have to clean up the mess! The choice is either to enjoy this home entertainment as a passing stage (which is what I would advise) or insist that your "audience" help clean up afterwards.

Control the mess. If mealtime gets out of hand, end the meal  -- and the mess. In our family, we would allow a mess on the high chair tray, but completely discouraged food flinging and purposeful dropping by immediately terminating the meal. Once baby understands the effect of her actions, the food will stay where it belongs.

Use utensils to distract. Our daughter, Erin, used to windmill her arms during feeding, causing food to fly everywhere. Our solution? We put a plastic spoon into each of her hands to occupy her while we fed her with a third spoon. You can also try placing toys with suction cups on the highchair tray and letting the child play with them while she's fed. And of course, there is the tried-and-true spoon-airplane trick  -- food will land safely into baby's eager mouth while keeping her entertained.

Drink up. If most of the meal makes its way to the floor rather than to baby's mouth, serve up smoothies in a tightly-sealed sippy cup that she can drink to her heart's content. (You can also use a bendable straw in a pinch.)

Use a sit-still strategy. Some toddlers kick, squirm, and make a mess simply to get out of their high chair during mealtime. To settle our own little squirmers, we used the rapid-fire feeding trick: we would keep coming at that little mouth with a small bit of food. Our kids would be so busy trying to keep up that those annoying kicks would soon cease.

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