Just when you get in a rhythm with baby…boom…they turn one and hit a new period of change. A baby who may have been sitting patiently in the high chair and eating well suddenly refuses their favorite foods, fights sitting in their high chair, and shake their head, “NO”—at everything.
There are reasons why toddlers do what they do. Understanding the “why” of a toddler’s behavior is key to managing emotions and maintaining calm at the table.
It’s common for toddlers to eat less than they did as babies. The rate of growth is slower in toddlerhood than in infancy, meaning they grow less quickly. Toddlers are also more efficient at eating and drinking compared to infancy. The combination results in a child who is less hungry and less motivated to try new foods. Toddlers are also busy practicing new skills like walking, running, and jumping, and they have shorter attention spans to endure leisurely meals.
As a toddler’s growth rate slows, there may be days where your toddler barely eats anything, followed by days where they eat more than the adults in the home. This is normal. Try not to focus on how much the child consumes daily, but rather, look at how much they eat throughout the week. Most healthy toddlers, if given a zero-pressure environment to eat, will not starve themselves.
Many parents start to worry during this growth and hunger slow-down and start pressuring the child to eat more or less food. Do not fall into this trap. It is well documented that pressure—even in the positive form of praising a child for eating—increases the risk of severe picky eating. Nearly all children have the inherent ability to regulate their appetite from the moment they are born. Trust them to do so. Any encouraging, nudging, reminding, pressuring, bribing, or force-feeding will backfire and likely lead to more selective eating and even disordered eating.
While you may think you need to encourage your child or “get” them to eat, these attempts—while sometimes effective in the short term—almost always have negative consequences in the long term. If you must “get” your child to eat enough to grow or gain weight, this suggests a larger issue and may require an evaluation by your child's medical provider.
If you are not sure what foods and nutrients to offer your toddler at this age, see our Toddler Nutrient Cheat Sheet for a quick guide.
Toddlerhood introduces a new phase of selective eating called Neophobia, the fear of new things. This phase causes toddlers to be less open to trying new foods. Neophobia typically starts in toddlerhood, often around 18-24 months old. Toddlers in the throes of neophobia might’ve formerly explored new foods with gusto and suddenly become skeptical and hesitant.
Some anthropologists believe that food neophobia is wired into toddler DNA. They suggest that neophobia would have been a wise protective response, making a child less likely to put a poisonous item into their mouth if they wandered away from a caregiver. Regardless of its origins, neophobia is real and can be frustrating. Know that your toddler is not trying to be difficult when they refuse food and are simply wired to be resistant to it.
If you are struggling with food refusal, see our guide Handling Toddler Food Refusal as well as our guide on Strategies to Interest Toddlers in Trying New Foods. Our virtual toddler course is also helpful for food refusal and engaging the child in exploring new foods.
Toddlerhood is a time for improved memory and preference or ideas about what foods and flavors they like and don’t like. While a baby might taste any food you put in front of them, a toddler knows they like certain foods more than others. Toddlers can now remember where to find their preferred foods, so you might find a child pointing at a snack cupboard or banging on the refrigerator, asking for whatever foods happen to be their favorites.
Do not let this period of selectiveness and preference dictate the menu and do not offer their favorite foods to avoid tantrums. Doing so is a fast lane toward picky eating and will only reinforce selectivity. It is your job to buy nutritious foods, set the menu, and offer the child a variety of foods to choose from. It’s the child’s job to decide whether they want to eat it, and how much.
Along with canines and lateral incisors, two big sets of molars erupt in the toddler years. Primary molars will likely erupt between 13 and 19 months of age and the secondary molars between 23 and 33 months of age. By 27 months, all the deciduous teeth should have erupted. These big molars are notoriously slow to erupt and cause a lot of drooling, associated pain, and discomfort. In the same way a baby or adult loses interest in eating when they don’t feelwell, toddlers have similar responses to illness and discomfort.
It’s common for teething toddlers to refuse new, familiar, and loved foods. Offer comfort, extra flexibility, and empathy, while also trying to maintain a normal mealtime routine, even if the child doesn’t want any of the food offered. If still nursing or drinking bottles, it’s not uncommon to see an uptick in milk feeds while picking at or refusing table foods. Return to your normal mealtime routine after the intense teething pain and discomfort pass.
Toddlers experience a strong developmental drive to test boundaries and be in control—two factors that contribute to selective eating. Expect big emotional expressions, crying, and tantrums, and expect your child to push your limits.
Testing boundaries is normal and natural, but you shouldn’t allow dangerous or unreasonable behavior—despite their pushing, toddlers need boundaries to feel safe. Let these moments be an opportunity to reassure them that you can handle their big feelings and will keep them safe. Big feelings and pushing boundaries do not equal a “naughty toddler.” These are developmentally appropriate periods of brain development that are normal and expected.
If you are struggling with behavior at the table, read our guide How to Stop Unwanted Mealtime Behaviors. Our virtual toddler course is also helpful for managing food refusal and engaging your child in exploring new foods.
Imagine you have a big idea but no words to describe it, or you are thirsty but don’t know how to ask for water—this is a toddler’s life every day, and it’s incredibly frustrating for them. With their lack of language, a toddler will often communicate through grunting, pointing, banging, yelling, throwing, rocking, crying, or tantrums. It’s frustrating to have big ideas, big feelings, and big needs but limited language to express them. Further, your toddler has limited ability to understand all the words spoken to them. Even for toddlers with strong expressive and receptive language skills, it’s common to see misunderstandings and frustration—especially when hungry.
Maintain a consistent feeding schedule, so mealtimes are predictable to prevent the child from getting overly hungry and angry. Remember to respond empathetically when the child has big emotions or frustration from their limited language skills.
Your toddler’s brain is not yet fully developed, and they are still learning how to control themselves and their bodies. A toddler may explode over something minor, suddenly change their mind, or react forcefully to disappointment or not getting their way.
A toddler’s brain circuits are simply not refined yet—and they tend to rely on their reactive brain that immediately sends them into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. A toddler does not have the life experience, regulation, or problem-solving skills to know how to think ahead and act during challenging situations or when flooded with emotion.
As an adult, you understand expectations and environmental cues. You also have a wider capacity for stress, frustrations, and disappointments. You can also identify times when your capacity for dealing with challenges is limited, such as times when you aren’t at your best, tired, stressed, touched out, or distracted. Your fully developed pre-frontal cortex helps with this. Your toddler, on the other hand, does not have this luxury. When something happens, or they have a feeling they can’t explain or don’t understand, they react with actions, which can quickly derail a meal.
In moments of toddler dysregulation, it can be helpful to reframe the moment from a “can’t” situation to a “won’t” situation. Coined by Drs Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel, this allows you to reevaluate the moment and say, “My child won’t sit still at this moment,” rather than, “My child can’t sit still at this moment.”
Toddlers are wired to explore yet hear “NO!” dozens or hundreds of times every day. Constantly hearing “no,” can lead to a low frustration tolerance and illicit big emotional responses, including tantrums.
Remember, in these moments, the child is not trying to get into trouble or push your buttons. They are doing exactly what their undeveloped brain knows how to do.
Practice patience and provide a lot of coaching along the way.
Offer your toddler some “yes” moments throughout the day.
Whenever possible, try to end your “no” with a “yes”—e.g., “You can’t have ice cream today, but we can try to put it on the menu tomorrow.”
While some situations will unequivocally require a big, “No!” other situations can be avoided with a bit of foresight and preparation. For example, offer a choice of two vegetables at mealtime rather than just serving one vegetable. Look for ways to let the child choose, which will help them feel empowered and in control in a world of “No.”
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