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Hot Topic Blog - Feeding, Eating, & Drinking


By Melanie Potock, Speech-Language Pathologist in Longmont, Colorado

January 2015


As a speech language pathologist who specializes in feeding, one of the most important strategies that I teach to parents and caregivers is the power of waiting. Children need time to organize their thoughts and their bodies before gathering up their courage to interact with a new food. Well-intentioned parents who cheer enthusiastically for their kids in order to “encourage them to do it” are accidently reinforcing NOT eating. If a child isn’t eating, the best thing to do is to give that behavior no attention. Instead, feeding therapists can provide strategies on how to negotiate each step to eating and when to praise…and just as importantly, how to praise. Whether today’s lesson was how to smell steamed broccoli without gagging or how to bite into a crunchy cucumber, each step is celebrated! By waiting for children to take the next step while we provide the framework for success, we instill in them a sense of autonomy and affirm their own feelings of “Wow, I did that on my own!”

In my parent guidebook, Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child the Joy of Food, Chapter 7 explores the concept of the power in waiting. I hope you enjoy reading Chapter 7.

Chapter Seven

What's that Cheerleader Doing in the Swimming Pool?

The Power of Waiting Before Cheering

We have all witnessed it. The shivering 3 year old, dressed in his new Spiderman© swim trunks. Dad is standing waist deep in the local public swimming pool, arms outstretched, shouting "You can do it! There you go! Get your toes on the edge! (Spiderman takes a giant step backwards.) C'mon, just jump! (Spiderman vehemently shakes his head "NO!") I'll catch you!"…and it goes on and on and on. Onlookers pretend not to watch, but carefully wait for the big moment and keep their eyes glued to the edge of the pool, for at any second, Dad is going to convince his son to jump in! Dad continues to cheer for his little boy, and frankly, if he had pom-poms, he would shake those too! Exasperated, he turns to his wife, who is coaching Dad on how to coach his son and standing just a few feet away. Under his breath, Dad turns away from junior and focuses his attention on his wife and whispers: "I've been at this for 20 minutes! When the heck is he going to...." SPLASH! Spiderman jumps in!

What just happened there? Johnny got a lot of attention for NOT jumping in the pool. Be careful what you pay attention careful what you reward with your children. Well-intentioned parents and grandparents do this all the time with hesitant eaters in the high chair. "Here comes the up...opennnn up for the it's flying it comes!" Beware of rewarding your child with attention for not opening up. If your child opens up, the air show ends immediately--and what fun is that?

There is immense power in waiting for a desired behavior to occur. When we cheer constantly for our children, we are reinforcing them for NOT doing it. Instead, try one positive statement to let him know what you are encouraging him to do. The father in the example might say "Put your toes on the blue line by the edge" and wait - about 20 seconds for preschoolers is ideal. Make the statement, wait and praise if it happens - "Your tickly toes are right on that blue line! Yea!" If you wait and it doesn't happen, just state it again: calmly, concisely and consistently. If he takes a step backwards, just wait 20 seconds for him to make the very brave decision on his own or state it again. Once he is on the line and you have praised him, encourage him with a new statement: "You can jump in!" Now wait. After a minute or two, give him a big hug and make a big deal about those tiny toes on the blue line! He'll jump in next time, or the next. But, he will make his own decision and feel great about himself if you just encourage and THEN wait.

Praising hesitant eaters follows the exact same course. Try rewarding each step of eating with positive comments, such as:

-"Wow, that roly-poly Brussel sprout almost fell off your spoon, but you made it land on the plate! Good balancing!" This would be appropriate for a child who won't touch the Brussel sprouts, but you suggested he spoon one out of the serving bowl and onto his plate.

-"You can roll those peas across your tray...zoom!" Can't you just envision your little one touching peas for the first time? Touching peas leads to picking up peas, which leads to smelling peas, kissing peas, licking peas, and eventually, eating peas.

-"You are a master cruncher! That was loud!" This little girl is being rewarded for crunching the cracker, even if she can only crunch it between two fingers until she is confident enough to crunch a cracker with her teeth.

-"These rolls smell yummy just like Grandma's house...what does yours smell like?" That's the perfect amount of attention for a child who decides to finally pick up a roll and give it a whiff.

-"That orange slice looked like a big happy smile when you bit into it!"

-"Hey, where did that asparagus go? In your happy tummy? You're the best at asparagus!"

When we keep each step positive and praise our children for trying, they see themselves as "good eaters" and have the confidence to try again. One of the best phrases I learned from a fantastic mom was "You are such a big-girl eater!" I love that phrase because you can use it for every stage of learning about food. "You are such a big-girl roly-poly Brussel sprout spoon balancer!" Kids love silly sentences like that!

About the Author from Her Website: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP is a mom who once had a picky eater. She’s experienced first-hand the stress that parents feel when they are worried about their child’s nutritional health. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find Melanie blending her knowledge of feeding therapy with practical parenting strategies that help the entire family eat healthier. She’s an international speaker and author of four books, including co-authoring the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater. Whether your raising a child who seems to be on the path to loving all kinds of healthy foods (and you want to keep it that way!) or you are seeking help for picky eater to enjoying more than chicken nuggets and fries, “Coach Mel” is here to guide you.

Permission: This is an excerpt from Melanie Potock’s book Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food! It is reprinted here with permission from Melanie Potock.