I often get asked by parents what my recommendations are regarding screen time and letting your baby or toddler watch TV whilst eating. I know this is something that families can feel quite strongly about one way or the other. I also talk to parents all the time who are finding it tough to help their little ones to eat and who find that a distracting screen at mealtimes can be a useful tool. I know how hard parenting can be and I want to caveat this blog post by underlining that I’m not judging anyone either way. That said, I don’t generally advise parents to rely on screens during their children’s mealtimes. Read on to find out why!
Disadvantages of screen time during meals
In my experience, letting your little one eat in front of a TV or phone screen tends to be a short-term solution to improving mealtimes or food refusal. I love talking about tips and hacks to help little ones enjoy foods again and to help parents reduce fussy eating behaviours. It’s important to recognise that children going through periods where they want less food and are refusing to eat certain items is very, very normal. My blog on “Why is my toddler a fussy eater?” might help to explain why this is.
However, using the TV as a tool to improve mealtimes or reduce fussy eating isn’t likely to be helpful in the long run. Why is this?
Mealtimes should ideally be about experiencing the food…children learn to like and accept what is familiar to them. They become familiar with different meals and foods from seeing them visually in front of them at the table. Additionally, I talk a lot about the experience of mealtimes and how important the social aspect of eating can be for making mealtimes enjoyable for little ones.
If we rely on TV and distractions to get little ones to eat, it means that they aren’t really thinking about or noticing or familiarising themselves with the meals offered. They may not even be tasting the food either, which all leads to children who don’t actually develop a relationship, acceptance or an enjoyment of foods. Eating may be seen as a necessary task, but not one that your toddler/child wants to actively do (without TV as a distraction) and this can make food refusal worse in the long run as well as instil a reliance on needing the distraction to eat. This may be an extreme example, but it does happen and I’ve seen it with multiple families myself.
Additionally, eating mindlessly (without paying attention to what we’re eating) means we’re not really listening to our bodies and our feelings of fullness during a meal either. This has been shown in research to lead adults to overeat and not really know when they are full.
Young children are learning about food, about their patterns of eating and about their hunger and fullness signs and how to recognise them too, so it’s important that they are able to pay attention to these fully. When we pay attention to the food on our plates, we also tend to slow down to savour it, which in turn helps our stomach to digest and our taste buds to recognise what they’re eating. For children, paying attention in this way, with minimal distractions, can be a really important, formative foundation in learning about food and how it makes their bodies feel.
Mealtimes should ideally be about:
- Familiarising them with foods
- Letting little ones explore a wide variety of colours, tastes and flavours
- Eating together with others
- Socialising and having conversation around food
- Learning from watching others eat
- Learning skills around eating
- Understanding eating is important & food can be enjoyable
- Listening to their feelings of hunger and fullness so they can eat to appetite
I shot this video of my daughter Ada which I think demonstrates really well how distracted she can be when watching television versus how she behaves at the table when she is fully focused on her eating.
In the clip, when Ada is eating more mindfully without the screen, you can see that she has the opportunity to consider how the food tastes, how it feels in her tummy and whether or not she fancies another mouthful. She is also sat up straight and eating mindfully and slowly which will aid her digestion.
Ways to limit screentime during mealtimes
No parent should feel guilty if they have come to rely on screens sometimes whilst feeding their baby or toddler. The truth is that it’s very easily done during our busy modern lives and can provide a short-term solution if mealtimes have hit a bit of a rough patch, or we simply want them to sit a bit stiller at the table. I do understand that watching their favourite cartoon over lunch can sometimes just seem to help them eat better (and as a side note, nobody is saying that there is anything wrong with enjoying a family movie night on the sofa altogether sometimes with finger foods).
However, if you are worried about regular screen use during meals and think it may have become a bit of a crutch, I want you to know that there are plenty of strategies and alternatives you can try to get your children on track with more mindful eating. If you are struggling with fussy eating or routines around feeding your children, I have lots of resources that can support you, including a free download on how to cope with fussy eating, my fussy eating crash course and blogs on how to manage behaviour to help kids enjoy mealtimes, and mealtime language tips.
If you would like to reduce your child’s screentime at meals, there are plenty of practical tips you can try to help your little one enjoy eating in other ways. Here are some in a nutshell:
7 top tips for reducing mealtime screens for kids
- Eat together whenever you can – they really will enjoy mealtimes so much more
- Take the pressure off “eating” and instead focus on making the mealtime itself enjoyable – smiles, chat, soft music, kicking off with a game first can all help
- Check your timings – overtired/overhungry babies/toddlers are not easy to feed!
- Let them have a choice – give them A or B options or offer a little “buffet-style” meal option
- Role-model and show them that you value food and that eating is important
- Involve them in food in other ways: cooking, stirring, playing or reading can all help them to be more accepting of food
- Follow this simple rule: you decide what’s on offer, but let them decide how much they eat
Have you tried any of these tips before? No two families or children are the same and different solutions work for different babies and toddlers but if you’re looking to ditch the screens for your kids during mealtimes, there are lots of options to try. I hope the advice in this blog is useful.