It happened with both our kids: At around 12 months, until about 19 months, they just wouldn’t stay at the dinner table. Sometimes they yanked at the straps and squirmed out of their high chairs; other times they dumped their plates in protest. Mostly they were just buzzing with energy wanting to eat a little, run around, then come back and eat some more. Our dinners were dominated by a chorus of, “Bums down, please!”
Luxmi Balakumar* had a similar struggle with her daughter, Carmel, who started refusing to sit in the high chair when she was 15 months old. Only the toddler had a different tactic: She would fold up her legs when held over the high chair, making it impossible to lower her into it.
Unfortunately, this kind of mealtime rebellion can’t be resolved with airplane sound effects—it takes more creativity (and patience) than that. So what can you do when your baby or toddler hates their high chair? Here are a few simple tactics to try:
Lower your expectations
Jay Baum, a registered dietitian and family nutritionist in Toronto, says parents need to be realistic about how long kids this age can stay at the table to begin with. “Five minutes might be all you get—that’s normal,” she says.
If mealtime resistance is happening mostly at dinner, the daily schedule and toddler fatigue could be a factor.
“That’s the roughest part of the day for kids, and for us as parents,” says Judy Delaware, an occupational therapist and co-founder of the website and e-course company feedinglittles.com. “We’ve just rushed home, we’re hungry and we’re trying to be the perfect parent in just a few hours a day.”
Baum recommends switching to easier toddler meals, like a rainbow of veggies, fruits, cheese and protein, or just reheating last night’s leftovers. She says a nightly family dinner isn’t realistic in some households—and that’s OK. At her house, breakfast has always been their “all-together” meal, because her husband can join them and they are all less stressed.
Create a mealtime routine
“Toddlers don’t like transitions, especially if you just scoop them up from playing and plop them into the high chair,” says Baum.
Instead, she suggests creating a recognizable routine before meals. “For example, tidy up, wash hands, bring their plate to the table, get in their chair, eat,” she says. (A visual schedule that includes images of the steps can be beneficial.) You could also use a timer, suggests Delaware, or play a special song or noise (on your phone, or on a countertop device like Alexa or Google Home) to signal it’s dinnertime.
Make sure the seat is comfortable
Delaware believes that high chairs and booster seats that don’t have foot rests are detrimental to mealtime success because they leave a toddler’s feet dangling.
“Have you ever been on a bar stool? It’s hard to be there for a long time without stability,” she says. “A footrest gives them stability in their postural muscles, from their hips all the way up through their neck and into their jaw.” This, believe it or not, will make it easier for them to scoop and grasp their food, and use utensils. It’s true that both my guys loved the transitional, adjustable chair they could climb into themselves—it was a wooden Stokke Tripp Trapp that looks almost like a stepstool, with a footrest and no tray. (We didn’t have as much success with booster seats or a toddler table and chairs, though we tried all of the above!)
For an affordable option, Baum recommends the Ikea Langur Junior high chair—it can transition between a high chair and a toddler chair, includes a footrest, and costs only $81.
Use distraction or incentive
Full disclosure: Not all the tactics that worked for my family are expert-approved. During our most time-crunched, low-on-patience dinners, putting on a Peppa Pig video definitely helped us get a few extra bites into those toddler bellies. We also discovered that reading picture books at the table worked (and didn’t make me feel quite as guilty as screen time). We made a deal: to turn the page, they needed to take a bite. Dietitians, however, don’t generally recommend incentivizing every bite. Delaware warns parents not to create a situation “where the only way they’re going to eat is with Elmo or Peppa Pig on.”
If you have gotten into a situation where you need to wean off a bad habit like tablets or phones in the high chair, “a book is better than a screen,” she says. Bringing a puppet or a special stuffed animal “guest” to the table would be even better.
In the end, that’s what worked for Balakumar’s daughter. “On a whim one day, I picked up this plush pig she loves and said, ‘OK, Piggy, it’s time to have dinner now,’ and I strapped it into Carmel’s high chair. Then I ‘fed’ some food to the pig, using her fork. ‘Are you done, Piggy?’ I asked. ‘Because now it’s Carmel’s turn.’ Then she let me buckle her in, with zero resistance, and ate her meal.”
This pre-dinner routine continued for a month or two, but then Carmel just got used to going into the chair on her own.
“It’s amazing how a tiny bit of novelty and a little bit of imagination on the parent’s end can make a big difference,” says Delaware.
*Name has been changed.