toddler screen time

Is it OK to let my child have screen time while eating?

Screen time during meal times. Is it bad? How can you manage it? I’ll answer these questions and more as we explore the role of screens in children’s mealtime experiences.

Toddler Girl Eating Strawberries While Using Tablet

As always, there is no one size fits all answer to this very common question. 

The impact of screens during meal times depends on your child’s specific needs and your family situation. For some children, screens can actually play a positive role. If your child has high levels of anxiety about eating, is neuro-divergent, screens can help distract them from difficulties, reduce external sensory input, lower anxiety and make mealtimes more manageable. In such cases, screens are not a negative influence but rather a helpful tool.

Parents often feel isolated and inadequate when dealing with fussy eaters, but it’s essential to recognize that accommodating a child’s preferences to ensure they are fed, happy, and anxiety-free is a significant achievement. We shouldn’t expect all children to eat the same way. Instead, we can work towards helping them build confidence, explore new foods, and participate in family mealtimes in their own way, without fear.

In order to decide whether you should remove a screen that is being used, it’s important to understand why you introduced it in the first place. Some children may appear reliant on screens, but it could be out of habit rather than necessity. Parents often introduce screens because they worry their child isn’t eating enough. So, if the screen is used to get a child to eat more, but the child is otherwise happy to eat it is not necessarily needed and may not be difficult to remove from the situation. 

One of the things I always encourage parents to do is to trust in their child’s appetite. If your child is growing well and seems satisfied between meals and snacks, we should offer food and allow our children to decide when they are full (it’s a system that usually works very well, it’s when we get involved as parents that children start losing the ability to listen to their body). We don’t question them on whether they’ve taken enough breaths during the day, food should be approached in the same way.

Whether your child is eating the right foods is another matter, but volume of food generally should not be in question. Children usually know how much food they need, and excessive distraction may not be necessary.

Another reason screens are used is purely to distract your child from what they are eating. There’s a lot to unpick here in one blog; but in summary: ideally your child should be connecting with their food and eating mindfully (unless, as mentioned above they have severe anxiety around eating in general). You are far better off offering foods that are safe for your child and creating a positive eating environment so that the screen is not required as a distraction, then you can work further on expanding accepted foods from there.

Some children rely on screens at certain mealtimes. Try to work out what it is about that meal that makes your child need the screen. Sometimes what we find is that the screen is for us, or there are noises/lights or other sensory input that make the mealtime more difficult. Once we understand why the screen is needed, we can start to think about how we can make the environment better for your child. 

Once you’ve determined whether the screen is genuinely needed or has become a habit, consider whether it’s time to remove it. If your child is very reliant on it, removing it abruptly might not be the best approach and there are other things to prioritise – such as creating a positive experience without pressure.

For children who are generally happy at the table and willing to eat without screens you can remove them and see how things go. Using positive language will help if they ask for the screen. Something along the lines of ‘you can have your screen once we are finished, but tonight we are going to sit and chat at the table rather than using the screen. We want to hear about your day’.  

For children who need help feeling confident and comfortable during mealtimes without screens, you should focus on building their confidence whilst they eat. Remove pressure to eat, serve foods in the middle of the table and allow them to serve themselves and talk about things other than the food. Once you are successfully doing these things you can start to think about removing the screen at certain mealtimes and slowly build up. 

Conclusion

In summary, the use of screens during mealtimes should be evaluated based on your child’s specific needs. Determine whether screens are genuinely needed or if your child has become reliant on them out of habit. Avoid pushing children to eat beyond their fullness, as appetites naturally fluctuate. Screens can be useful tools, especially on occasions when you need your child to be focused. Ultimately, don’t let others dictate your choices at meal times. Trust your judgment as a parent.

If you need further advice or support, feel free to reach out to me via my website or Instagram (@theearlyyearsdietitian). 

If you’d like more information or personalized guidance, you can reach out to me through my Instagram page (@TheEarlyYearsDietitian) or my website. Remember, you’re not alone on this journey, and there are ways to make mealtimes a positive experience for your child.

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