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Distraction Feeding - Why Some Toddlers Eat Better When Distracted

In several blog posts I write about how distractions while eating, called distraction feeding, can help picky eaters eat better. When is distraction feeding OK to use? And when is it better to feed your child without distractions? 

distraction feeding graphic

What is distraction feeding?

Distraction feeding is simply using various distractions while eating to get your child to eat. Some typical distractions while eating are the "airplane flying trick," feeding your toys or having your child feed you first, waving toys in front of your kids, dancing or singing while your kids are eating, and of course: TV.

Distraction feeding is often used by parents of babies and toddlers to get them to eat. In fact, I have a whole list of tips and tricks to get your toddler to eat, and many of them are various distraction feeding ideas.

Why does distraction feeding work?

Distraction feeding works because your child is distracted from the food and not as focused on being freaked out or repulsed by new food on the plate. Their senses are occupied with distractions, so they just do not oppose trying new foods, eating non-preferred foods, or eating more food.

Distraction feeding is controversial

Distraction feeding is definitely controversial, because a child is not as aware of their food and not as in tune with their body if they are eating while they are distracted. This can lead to a child not knowing when they are full and when they should stop eating, which can then lead to childhood obesity or portion control and weight problems later on in life.

If a child is distracted and not as aware of their food, then they might not learn to eat certain textures, might not learn to enjoy certain flavors, and might not accept new foods to try later on in life.

Of course, it's not ideal if a toddler only eats when distracted. But the pros of distraction feeding can sometimes outweigh the cons. Some examples below...

Sensory overload

There are many children whose picky eating is caused by sensory overload. Some kids are too aware of everything they are eating. They might be freaked out by all the different colors, textures, and flavors on their plate. This is definitely the case with my son, who's had some amount of food aversion since he was a baby.

Underweight kids 

Many toddlers and children can also be underweight because of their picky eating and sensory issues.

That’s where my recommendations for distractions come in – because I’ve been through all of this with my son and we needed a way - any way - to get him to eat.

Recommendations from a feeding therapist

My son has been working with a feeding therapist for months, on and off. We’ve seen huge progress in his eating, and I wrote more about it in my post about feeding therapy for picky eating, read about it if you’re curious.

Our feeding therapist has specifically recommended to use small distractions if we are working on trying a new food with my son, or a food that we know he does not like because of a texture. She agreed that this is typically NOT recommended, but it works very well for my son.

BINGO! This is the same mom instinct I had even before we started feeding therapy. I was glad to hear I wasn’t doing this feeding thing totally wrong.

I want to emphasize that this is a recommendation for my son from our feeding therapist who has been working with him for months. This does not necessarily apply to every child, so please work with a pediatrician AND an occupational therapist to determine the right approach for your child.

Distractions to use while eating

There are many distractions that can be used while trying to feed a picky eater toddler:

  • Small toys
  • Feeding while playing, or solving a puzzle
  • Reading a book to your child
  • Listening to music
  • Flash cards
  • Watching TV

You can definitely try whichever one you think your child might enjoy. I just want to warn that if you decide to try to use TV, you might have a really hard time going back on that. Trust me. We’ve been there. We used to rely on our son watching TV to get him to eat for over a YEAR. We finally decided to put an end to it because it was really taking away from having a nice meal together as a family. Here is how we cut out TV while eating. So I would recommend trying any of the other ideas before you go the screen time route.

I especially recommend rotating between several different distraction methods so your child doesn’t start relying on ONE of them to eat. This way your child won't get used to eating only while playing and refuse to eat otherwise. (This is also related to my tip for reducing toddler meltdowns and raising a more easy-going toddler.)

These distractions totally work for my son. He is definitely more open minded about trying a new food if he is not staring at the food on his plate, being overwhelmed about having to try something new, something unfamiliar, something that might be a color he doesn’t want to eat or a shape that looks "wrong" to him.

Like magic, he opens his mouth for food if he is wheeling his car around the high chair, or if he is working on a puzzle on the coffee table in the living room. He is willing to give food a fair chance if we are talking about pictures we see on flash cards, or if he is bobbing his head up and down to his favorite songs. It takes the pressure off of having to eat.

And of course, he eats like a champ when he is zombied out by a cartoon. We save that tactic for when we have to go out to eat and he just refuses to sit, or when we are traveling and really need him to sit and eat quickly. But we NEVER do it at home anymore – it would be too easy for him to fall into the iPad habit again at home.

20 ways to get a toddler to eat when they refuse

I have a great blog post where I share 20 different tips and tricks that get my son to eat, and if you look at them you will see that most of them are distractions in one way or another. Some are behavioral / psychology tactics that make my son want to eat, but most are distractions, plain and simple.

Take a look at them, see if they might help your picky eater!

The end goal

Of course, the goal for me is to have my son be open minded about trying new foods, and not get upset or anxious if he sees new foods on his plate. He doesn’t have to like all the foods he tries, I just don’t want him to have a meltdown if he sees a speck of parsley on his rice, or someone offers him something new to try.

Once my son is consistently eating a new food while being distracted, I show him the food he is eating, tell him what it’s called, and make sure he is aware of what he is eating so that he learns that he actually likes this food!

We’ve been using this tactic with him for several foods, and it’s been working for us.

More picky eating resources:

I would love to hear from you below – Does your baby only eat if distracted? Is your toddler always distracted at mealtimes? What do you think of distractions while eating? Are we just spoiling our kids and being too soft on them? Or do you agree that it might be a good tactic to use to help picky eaters eat better? Please leave me a comment below, I would LOVE to hear from you!

And please don't forget to share this with a friend or save it for later on Pinterest:

distraction feeding pinterest graphic

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Mary Ann

Wednesday 30th of August 2023

My son and his wife sing to our Granddaughter to get her to eat. Nursery rhymes mostly. I talk to her and she does pretty.well, but they INSIST that I sing to her. They seriously delayed having children because they were intolerant of how other children behaved in restaurants. Today I alienated myself because I pointed out that they were creating an eating "ambiance " that will cause them to be singing to their daughter in a restaurant in order to get her to eat.

I have done quieter distractions (spinners, fidgets, etc with a considerable amount of success) but they insist that I sing. Now I feel like I have crossed a line that can never be re-written. The baby is 10 months old and her food "schedule" is very limited. When she struggles with a new texture, they go back to stage 1 foods, and I feel like she just needs more practice. She has 8 teeth already and no physical impairment

Agnes Lily

Thursday 24th of November 2022

Hello, my 10mo baby will eat if he standing near the stairs, he always crying when we try to put him on highchair.. it happens since he 8mo and it stressed me out because he only eat 2-4 spoon if we try to feed him on highchair even standing on highchair..but he will eat 15-20 spoon if we feed him standing near stairs.. is it okay? Or i’m too soft? But this 2 months really stressed me out and his weight not good.. thank you..


Monday 5th of December 2022

Aww that's so tough. Aren't babies so strange, choosing where they want to eat even if it's s somewhere odd?? I am definitely not an expert and every baby is different, but I think reducing stress for everyone is important, so if you have a few meals that are by the stairs and it makes your life easier, then go for it. Just be careful with choking, make sure he is sitting or standing still and not walking or crawling around as he is eating.

At the same time, make sure you keep being consistent with trying the high chair since that's where you want him to eat ultimately. Maybe aim for 1 meal a day in the high chair, and make sure to do other FUN activities in the high chair so he is not dreading the high chair. We used to do sensory activities and messy tray on the high chair because it was easy cleanup and it was a way for my son to associate the high chair with something FUN instead of just eating multiple times a day.

At the end of the day, remember that this is just a phase. I know it's stressful now and 2 months of battling this is very tiring... but in the long run he is not going to be standing by the stairs eating when he is 5, and he will not even be in a high chair by then! It will all work itself out and you'll come across NEW struggles lol. Just try to focus on him not seeing you get stressed out about this, and make sure all other caregivers are being consistent with your approach. Hang in there!

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