By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

At age 2 and 3, a child begins to be not only independent but also aware of himself and of other’s feelings.

In the first year, feeding is established as an important form of communication between child and parent. But feeding also becomes a time for play, which is the young child’s most important way of learning about his world.

A child’s passion to learn is so strong it overshadows hunger. Parents are equally passionate about nourishing their child. But in this arena the parents should avoid setting up any battles.

Food Play

When a 3-year-old calls your attention to the “picture” he has made out of carrots and green beans, he is using food to test his new skills. To a parent the “picture” feels like teasing or making a mess with important, hard-earned ingredients.

Parents may remind children about starving children elsewhere in the world. The child senses the pressure, and the message can complicate a child’s attitude toward eating. My parents were second-generation Texas settlers, steeped in their parents’ struggles to make a living in this new land. I remember my mother’s stern face when I left food on my plate. I found I couldn’t avoid replaying my mother’s strong feelings with my own children.

When they seemed to be “playing with their food,” I had to learn not to comment on it. Should a parent give in to the child’s need to play with food, and let him tease? No. Parents can make it clear that food is for eating, not play. But making an issue of it won’t work.

When a child begins to play with his food, simply remove his plate and tell him, “All done” or “It looks like you’ve finished eating. Did you like it?” Then, remove him from the table and let him settle down to play on his own. Stopping the behavior firmly but gently is far more effective than criticizing or punishing it.

Eventually he will understand that staying at the table with the family depends on his learning to feed himself as everyone else does. He will be far more motivated to imitate adult table manners if punishments are not associated with mealtimes. Manners come later – at age 4 and 5.

Maintain your patience and perspective. A study that documented toddlers who were allowed to choose their own foods over several months showed that the children balanced their diet with all the ingredients necessary for optimal growth.

Strategies for Feeding

  • Consider feeding a toddler separately – not in isolation, but at a time and place where food and his choices are not the focus. You and others who won’t comment on his eating can keep him company so that he can learn to look forward to meals as a time to enjoy being together.
  • Don’t make special foods for him if you will be disappointed when he refuses them or plays with them.
  • Start with the more nourishing food while he likeliest to be hungry.
  • Offer two bits of food at a time, then two more, until he begins to drop them or throw them.
  • Don’t expect him to be excited by new or different foods.
  • Decide beforehand about the limits you’ll set. Then, without excitement, say, “That’s the end of the meal” and put him down.
  • Ignore his requests for grazing between meals.
  • Relax about a “balanced diet” if the child is healthy and growing.

(This article is adapted from “Feeding: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to his passing, Dr. Brazelton was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.