Pre-Weaning Strategies for Toddlers

Being the parent of a toddler is exceptionally fun and rewarding.  It can also be exhausting. Developmentally, toddlers are learning to be independent people. Any parent of a toddler can tell you that this newfound independence can lead to moments of joy and discovery. It can also lead to moments of meltdown and power struggles.

Having a toddler with a feeding tube brings its own set of challenges. While a feeding tube might have been necessary to keep a child alive and growing well as an infant, this same feeding tube may have significantly influenced a child’s relationship with food.  A feeding tube might make it hard for a child to understand and learn how the normal experience of hunger and satiation drives typical eating.

To make things even more complicated, typically developing toddlers without feeding tubes often struggle to enjoy foods of various tastes and textures. It’s developmentally appropriate for a toddler to be a stubborn or anxious eater! Many toddlers are sensitive to the textures or smells of certain foods. Other toddlers may simply refuse food altogether, enthusiastically throwing foods off of their high chair tray. 

How do we, as loving caregivers, help the toddlers in our lives with tubes get ready to participate in a wean during this sometimes challenging developmental stage?

We want to help the toddlers in our lives to feel good and develop comfort and confidence while interacting with foods. 

We can help the toddlers in our lives to feel good. 

We can help the toddlers in our lives by supporting their overall growth, physical well-being, and emotional health. We can recognize the things that are genuinely difficult for a child and provide comfort and support. We know that deep down our toddlers want to please us and they are doing the best that they can.  We can encourage the toddlers in our lives to engage with food at their own pace without pressuring them or shaming them.

We can begin to help our toddlers learn about food in safe and comfortable ways, at their own pace. 

Here are some ideas of how this might happen:

Include your toddler in family mealtimes in safe and comfortable ways. 

Family mealtimes have the potential to be a tremendous learning time for your toddler. While your toddler might not have the skills or the desire to interact with foods at a mealtime, this is okay. You can gently create space for your child to join your family at the table as they learn about what happens during a meal. 

Mealtimes might include opportunities for your child to be a special helper for mom or dad, handing out silverware. You can think about including your toddler in conversation and giving them opportunities to practice using their hands as they hold and manipulate containers or utensils. Toddlers often love passing foods to siblings or handing out napkins.  

Many children are able to participate in the mouth aspects of a mealtime by having a special drink or mouthing a pacifier or teether while they sit with their parents and siblings.

Some children aren’t ready to touch, or even eat foods at the dinner table-- this is okay!  We want to help children learn that they can enjoy joining their families at the table, no matter where they may be in their journey of becoming oral eaters.   

Toddlers benefit from having short and positive mealtime experiences with people who love them. Don’t worry about the amount of time your toddler spends at the table, concentrate on including your child, and keeping the mealtime experience positive, even if your child is only able to attend the meal for a few minutes.

Consider giving your toddler opportunities to explore foods apart from mealtimes.

When a child has developed a certain level of trust with food, they may be ready to have experiences interacting with foods. These food experiences don’t have to be long or elaborate. We want to make sure that we are inviting children to participate in food interactions that are comfortable and enjoyable for them. Some children do especially well participating in food interactions apart from mealtimes, when they can interact with foods at their own pace. We want to make sure that the goal of these activities is to help the toddlers in our lives develop confidence interacting with foods, not eating the foods or even bringing them to their mouths. 

Here are a few ideas of positive food experiences a toddler might enjoy:

  • If a toddler is motivated by colors or shapes, a parent could help a child to sort berries with the red strawberries in one bowl and the blueberries in a second bowl.

  • If a child enjoys building with blocks, we could invite that same child to stack cucumber slices to build cucumber buildings.

  • A toddler may enjoy using a child-safe knife to cut a banana and hand it to her sister.

  • A toddler may enjoy using a spoon to scoop yogurt into a bowl or pouring juice into a cup (with the help of loving grown-up, of course!)

  • A child may enjoy dumping salad from a bag into a large salad bowl or using their fingers to transfer the leaves into a bowl. 

When we help the toddlers in our lives build confidence interacting with food we are helping them learn to love food and build important mealtimes skills.

Karen Dilfer, MS, OTRL, Feeding Specialist