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My 4-year-old won’t sit still. He’s up and down throughout the entire meal. Help!

Thanks for this question, it's a very common complaint I hear from parents. Mealtime is a great opportunity to connect with our family members, so it can be frustrating when you’re constantly interrupted by your little one. First, I want to touch on expectations around sitting for a 4 year old. Most kids can handle being seated around 2-5 minutes per year of age, so a 4-year-old can be expected to sit anywhere from 8-20 minutes at the table before they start to need a change of scenery. So, if you have long mealtimes, it’s not realistic to expect your child to sit for the entire meal. That being said, there are some simple tricks and tips to help your little one do their best at the table.

  • Ensure they are positioned correctly in their chair. If your little one has a weak core and is prone to getting fatigued easily, sitting for an extended period of time could be very challenging for them. Have your child sit with their hips, knees, and ankles all bent at 90 degrees. If their feet are dangling, you need to provide a stool, so their feet are supported.

  • Provide a wiggle cushion. A wiggle cushion could be a good solution if your child is constantly fidgeting. These seats allow the child to wiggle around in their chair and get proprioceptive input (input to muscles and joints) and vestibular input to help the child better understand where they are in space. It can improve posture, balance, and core strength, resulting in improve attention and self-regulation.

  • Create a “pre-dinner” routine for your child. This routine should help your child get their wiggles out and get their body “ready” to sit. You can have him do animal walks, an indoor obstacle course, carry plates to set the table, etc. If you need more direction, a Kinspire therapist can help personalize an effective routine for your child.

  • Invite them to the table once the meal is ready. This will help their success with sitting at the table, so they aren’t using up their “sitting time” waiting for food.

  • Engage in conversation with your child. Ask your child questions about their day, play a fun word game (”Guess the animal I'm thinking of” is one of my favorites) with the whole family, and make sure to include them in the conversation. Often, the adults end up in conversation, and the child feels left out and loses interest in sitting.

If your child continues to have difficulty sitting at the dinner table, there may be underlying challenges making it hard for him. If you would like more guidance on supporting your child and learning what could be affecting his success at the dinner table, schedule a free consultation with an expert Kinspire occupational therapist to get started.