I was stunned to learn years ago that once a baby is able to sit securely on her own (usually 8 to 12 months old), she can actually sit down to eat at her own little table. High chairs are certainly functional and have been around for hundreds of years, but believe it or not, it is easier to feed a baby at a small table. And babies love the independence — their feet touch the floor, they can sit while hungry, and leave the table as soon as they are done.
Ditching the highchair may sound like an overwhelming prospect, and I am not suggesting parents dump it entirely. But I do recommend giving the small table a try, first only for snack time. Then, if the baby does not play by the rules, you can revert to the high chair and know he has not missed a whole meal. Eventually, you may see the benefit of using a baby-size table for all his meals.
Here are the suggested rules for using a small table:
1) The baby must sit while eating. This is a wonderful first limit for babies, and they will enjoy testing it…and testing it…and testing it. (Please see video.) But they do get the concept almost immediately.
2) If the baby leaves the table, he is signaling that he is finished, and we put the food away. This may take a few tries to sink in, and we give the babies several chances at this when we introduce snacks in the RIE parenting classes. But parents should adhere to this rule right away at home to make it as clear as possible. It is helpful to give a warning, “Next time you leave the table I will put the food away,” and then follow through. This is not cruel or abusive! Children quickly learn they have a choice, and when they are truly hungry they stay.
3) Food is simply offered. A baby is never forced or coaxed to eat (“here comes the airplane…”) Babies do not have to even come to the table if they are not hungry, or if the food is not ready yet.
Compare this to the highchair experience, where a baby is strapped in while waiting for his food, and then often signals he is finished by dropping food on the floor or throwing it. When babies eat at small tables they seldom, if ever, throw food.
Children benefit in many ways with this approach to eating. They are invited to be active participants in mealtime, instead of a captive audience. They are allowed to decide how much they will eat, and how long they will spend at the table, which gives them the small sense of control that burgeoning toddlers crave. Mealtime is more pleasure and less chore for parents too.
Participation in a predictable ritual brings a sense of security. The baby anticipates and relishes in each step: wiping his hands with a wet washcloth, choosing a bib, practicing with a spoon, and wiping off the table afterwards.
Parents are teaching good manners, safety, and focus. A toddler who sits to eat is less likely to choke than one who is followed around with snacks while he plays at the park. And he is learning to do one thing at a time. He focuses on the food and the company he’s with until he is finished eating.
In the parent/infant classes we begin with bananas, and the babies help peel them. When the children are a few months older we offer small glasses (yes, glasses), although plastic works fine, too, and water. The key is to put just a sip’s worth of water in the glass, so it doesn’t matter if they spill it while they are learning. Sippy Cups can be skipped altogether.
Eventually, the children pour the water themselves using small pitchers or measuring cups. Needless to say, they really get into the pouring part. Most of us would not think an 18 month-old capable of pouring water into his glass. But with practice, a toddler learns this skill quickly and takes great pride in his accomplishments.
Every parent would adopt this approach to feeding a baby if they knew how much easier, safer and more enjoyable mealtime could become. Do try this at home.
(Many of you have asked how to find a baby-sized table. Breakfast-in-bed trays like THESE work wonderfully.)
I share more about this unique approach in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
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