Refusing to Get in the High Chair


Parent Question

So basically the issue is that recently my 18 month old has become more and more resistant (and more and more frequently) to getting strapped into her high chair for meals.  Sometimes she just fights it for a few seconds but once she’s strapped in and notices the food on the table in front of her, she calms right down and starts eating. That’s fine, we can handle that.  But other times she gets it into her head that she’d really like to sit in one of the “adult” dining room chairs (or this other little chair we have for her in the living room, but with no table and no straps)… and so when she sees us getting her food ready, she marches right over to one of those preferred eating locations, and then has a meltdown when we try to move her over to the high chair.  I’m pretty sure it is the strapping in specifically that is pissing her off, combined with her recent (and I’m sure developmentally typical) obsession with doing adult things, making her want to sit in the adult chairs like we do.

Of course, I know we contributed to this issue arising in the first place, as there had been a few times in recent weeks where she was just going to eat a cheese stick or something non-messy, or taste a bite of something she saw one of us eating, and we let her sit on the floor or in one of those other “preferred” chairs to eat (without even trying for the high chair first, just not thinking anything of it). But once this had happened a few times, she started specifically asking for these non-high chair options, and now is asking more regularly… and now, as I described above, is sometimes getting really hysterical when the answer is no.  (I also know that a lack of consistency in how we’ve dealt with it the few times that she’s had a meltdown about it is not helping the issue. Hence why I’m coming to you to try to figure out ASAP what our consistent approach to this should be, and sticking to it!)

I know the RIE approach suggests using a low table and chairs (like you guys have in the classrooms) rather than high chairs, in part because of this strapping in issue.  I’m sure she’d like that, and it’s under consideration / not out of the question. But it’s not an ideal solution, within the constraints of our space: we live in a relatively small townhouse and it’s not clear where exactly we’d fit a little table and chairs.  (Not to mention the fact that the Stokke high chair was a rather large investment to begin with…) So at this point, the question is where do we go from here and what should be our approach to dealing with this moving forward…

Our Answer

I would recommend starting this with your needs and her needs. Only when we connect with those basic needs can we find a true win win solution. So possible needs you might consider for her would be: autonomy (really big for toddlers), comfort, rest (is she overtired), food (if it’s meal time she’s likely hungry), belonging (to be at the table with you), connection, and empathy, there may be others you can think of as well. Your needs are likely; peace (less tantrums), safety, cleanliness, and perhaps more you can think of. When you think through all of those you can start to think of possible solutions. What would you be willing to give up and what would she be willing to try; here is a short list of possible solutions.

– Snacks in big chair and meals in the high chair

– Everything in the high chair with no straps

– Everyone has their own chair and we put a picture on it and all the other chairs are stored for when guests are present

– She chooses which part of the table the chair is at but sits in her high chair

– You all eat at a small table

– She eats at a small table and mom and dad eat at their own table

– She eats standing in a big chair but if she gets down she’s done

– She climbs in by herself but sits in her highchair

– We get a booster seat for an adult chair

– She sets the table for every chair then gets in her chair

– She gets a special cushion for her seat or straps

– She buckles herself

– We move dinner 15 minutes earlier so she’s less hungry and tired.

– We make time for connection and eye contact before dinner.

Think about it not as a single solution but the right blend of solutions, you want to try to address those needs. You will need to look through the list and see what meets your needs, maybe something is just too messy or you don’t feel will be safe enough. The tantrum might be a sign of being tired or too hungry. The comfort might be adjusting the chair or straps adding a cushion. It might be that she wants to be close and some connection time before dinner is needed because she’s been away from you during the day.

It might be she needs some empathy so though it can feel counter intuitive I always say exactly what the toddler is trying to say, “You’re really mad you want to eat in this other chair.” “You don’t like that chair you don’t want to sit there.” “You like it when you can eat in the other chair at snack and you want to do that again, that was confusing for you.” “The straps are uncomfortable you want to sit without straps.” Remember that’s not saying you agree, but that she has a valid perspective.

When she gets upset always start with empathy then go for a choice; empathy, empathy, empathy then choice. “That sounds tough, you could put your high chair on this side or by the window, which do you choose?” Two positive choices that you can live with. “You could buckle the straps or you can hold the fork while I buckle, which do you choose?” In this we often want to rush but just ride out the upset, with empathy letting her know, “I’m going to help you with this, breathe, when you’re ready to eat you can climb into your seat or I will lift you.”

For recurring challenges that maybe you need to change boundaries on, I usually recommend to introduce and ask for input on the new plan outside of the context of the stressor. So not at the table but out of that context, maybe before bed, when you’re playing in the living room, or during the bath. Tell her, “You’ve been getting really sad getting into your chair at dinner and I want to help you with that. Here are my ideas… (She might have some she might not.) Here are my expectations… (She might say no which is a call for empathy not a change in expectation but listening to the need and seeing what might help).”

Parent’s Reflection

I’ve been meaning to say for weeks now – thank you SO MUCH for this thoughtful response and all of these great suggestions!  This was SUPER helpful!!! I ended up going the route of asking her to climb into her high chair (it was the first thing I tried from your list), and right away she did so happily, and has been doing so ever since!  Amazing the small tweaks that make the world of difference sometimes!

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