3 Year Old Can't Sit Still at Restaurant

Updated on July 06, 2012
S.S. asks from Los Angeles, CA
30 answers

Hi Mamas,

My 3-year-old (just turned 3 in case that makes a difference) cannot sit still at restaurants. Sometimes he's OK but other times he'll stand up in his chair, try to walk around the restaurant, be a little loud, etc. We tell him that he needs to behave and he'll be good for 2 minutes and then start back up again. So we rarely ever go to restaurants. My question is - is this normal for a 3 year old or does this mean we're not disciplining him properly? And if it's the latter, any tips??


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answers from Orlando on

I took my daughter out to eat all the time, ever since she was a baby. She's almost 10 now. I always brought snacks, and an array of little toys for her to play with. If she got bored with one, I'd switch it up. My sister will take her almost 3 year old daughter to dinner with NOTHING. and then get upset/wonder why her daughter acts up and gets bored. You have to be prepared.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

3yr olds do not belong in this restrictive of an environment - my 5yr old barely can do it. I think bringing a 3yr old anywhere but a quick eat w/ a play area is begging for an unsuccessful time.

4 moms found this helpful

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answers from Austin on

A 3 year old only has to 2 to 3 minutes of attention span.. And so you need to be prepared to distract him or keep him engaged.

At home he needs to be taught to stay in his chair. To use his inside voices.. etc.. That is where he is going to learn how to behave out in public,

Also "We tell him that he needs to behave and he'll be good ".. This is too vague.. What does this mean to a 3 year old? Nothing.. It is too abstract..

Instead you need to say, "We use inside voices here."

"We keep our bottoms in the chair at the restaurant."

"We will take you for a walk in 10 minutes."

Then you need to keep him engaged while you are waiting to order, while you are waiting for the food.

At home you do not have him sit at the table until dinner is ready to be served.. And so at a restaurant you all are just sitting there.. Take some snacks or give him some bread or order something that can come to the table really fast.. Take colors, little cars, read him a book..

We used to take turns taking out daughter outside about every 15 minutes at this age. She only needed about 3 to 5 minutes to walk around and then would be fine for 15 to 20 minutes at the table.

Be sure you are eating at "Family" friendly places.. No point stressing out at a place that people are paying money for the atmosphere.

There were times, we knew our daughter was just not up for eating out. So we would do take out.. It is just like adults.. If you are in a bad mood, you know you do not want to deal with others.. so you stay home.

Try not to set your child up for failure..

And Praise, praise him while he is doing well.
I like how you are using your inside voices. I like how you are staying seated in your chair. Thank you for sharing your bread.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

It's the age; he's young for anything more than a quick serve type of restaurant. (My daughter started loving Subway at around 3 1/2, so it doesn't have to be bad for you fast food.) She also started loving some "big girl" restaurants about that time, too. We always talk about how we ar going to a "big girl" restaurant and how big girls behave. Here is what helps for us to have a good experience:
- going somewhere that we do not have to wait for a table more than about 5 min
- sitting on the same side of the table...easiest with a booth, but sometimes we have to move a chair at the table close to each other
- going someplace that is not super quiet, so that I don't have to worry if she talks a little louder.
- taking a quiet actvity or a few extra crayons to supplement a kid's meal
- going someplace that begins serving food almost immediately (Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, Mexican) or ordering an appetizer.
- Ordering quickly
- Pulling out my debit card when the entree (or dessert) arrives and letting the server know that I'll want the check shortly so that I can sign the bill when we're done eating and ready to go

The important thing is to be realistic about your meal occasion and expectations. Dining out with a 2 year old is not going to be a great date night or great social activity with friends. That takes too much time and too little attention on the little one. To dine out successfully, the child needs to be interested or occupied. You will have to give quite a bit of focus to the little one vs. to dining companions. The meal has a window of somewhere between 1/2 hr - 1 hour, and you need to be able to recognize (and react) when the window is closing. Eating out at sit-down restaurants can be done. However, if you are hoping for a social occassion or a romantic dinner, you'll definitely want to hire a babysitter for several more years.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

Basically, most 3 year olds require distractions to keep them busy, they're bored sitting there. Some restaurants offer a couple of crayons and a coloring page, I take a box of crayons and a coloring book. Game apps on your cell phone are also good distractions. Plan to keep your meal short, no lingering for coffee and conversation. Go to family friendly restaurants until he's better behaved, and expect the same behavior at home (no standing in his chair, being loud, walking around, etc.) so he has consistent expectations. And develop a good rapport with your babysitter, don't feel compelled to always take him, go without him sometimes to just relax and enjoy your meal.

Take heart, his behavior will eventually improve.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

I am guessing it depends upon the child. Do you eat dinner as a family together at home every night? Does your son need to sit for the entire meal, participate in the conversation and wait until the meal is over to get up? If he does these things routinely at home, then probably the restaurant atmosphere is just exciting because it is different and you need to take him out more. If he can't do these things at home - I don't see why he would have these skill when you take him out. If you don't 'practice' at home each night, I think it is unrealistic and unfair to expect him to 'behave' when he goes out.

We took my son to 'real' restaurants (not the child friendly kind) from the time he came home from the hospital. Things that helped once he was a toddler were making sure he was hungry, but not too hungry. I would bring a small snack in case the bread didn't come out right away. I always mentioned to the waiter to serve DS's food as soon as it was ready - not to wait and serve all the meals at the same time. We made sure he was not tired. We did not go out if for some reason DS had missed his nap. Going out to late in the evening could go either way and we were always had coffee at home if he seemed tired. Many people bring toys - I didn't primarily because I believe restaurants are for food and conversation - but it works to keep some kids quiet.

I do also think other restaurant patrons see children who are well dressed as better behaved - doesn't make too much sense but we got way more compliments on how well behaved my son was, when we dressed him up a little. Doesn't hurt :).

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Detroit on

I think it's just his age, for the most part - usually at that age they can't stay still for very long, there is a big difference between just-turned-3 and almost-4, they get bored quickly. Some of it could be him being a boy too. You can keep reminding him of the rules, but keep your expectations realistic.

Usually when we went out to eat with our daughter, we brought stuff along that would keep her occupied, and also went to family-friendly places where they provided crayons and coloring pages, and the wait time was not very long. She's been going long enough that she knows now what to expect and how to behave (she is almost 5) but we also know we can't linger 2 hours over dinner either. Letting her play games on my phone really helps too!

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

It's the age. Have stuff that he'll be interested in doing (table games/toys that won't disturb others. Have food that he's interested in eating. Keep reminding him of proper behavior. But really, take him to family friendly restaurants, and keep the time you spend there betweeen 1/2-1hour max - it's just easier for everyone.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

totally normal. in fact i'd say that 3 is about the worst age we experienced as far as restaurants go. at 2 they are more easily entertained imo, and quieter (seems counter-intuitive but in our case, ours was quieter at 2 than at 3!)

take snacks, toys, crayons, etc. -stuff he ONLY gets to play with at restaurants. we were always big fans of buffets (no waiting) and places like mexican or italian who provided chips or bread immediately (also no waiting). that helps. and yes, we did not eat out as often. he is 5 (almost 6) now and we can take him anywhere. hang in there, it gets better!

(it's not so much about ruling with an iron fist, or giving up on restaurants until they're older. teaching good manners at home helps, so does working within their limitations. the more stressed out you get the worse it will be. be prepared, don't expect to be able to control every sound out of their mouth. you can't and it will just drive you crazy trying! but we also stuck to family type restaurants. don't take him to the dark quiet greek place that only couples go. ya know? common sense. it's a great skill for a small child to have, knowing how to behave in public/at a restaurant.)

3 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

Sounds likemany many 3 yr olds. There will always be the docile, peaceful children who sit still with folded hands - but I always wonder about those kids. One of my children was active at 3, the other was VERY active. You have to bring things for a 3 yr old to do while waiting. books to read to him, small toys to play with (small action figues - we had Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, BArney, and more - even a miniature house). ALso play games liek "I spy with my little eye..." and then begin that game. YOu will not be able to put your 3 yr old in a high chair and then have grown-up conversation with your husband while your child keeps herself busy. You wil be able to get snatches of conversation in between Pooh flying over the exotic drink menu however. When my VERY active son was tht age we got take-out unless we had free babysitting. My 6 yr old daughter even asked if we were ever going to go to a restaurant again! One last tip - find restuarant with a salad bar or a buffet of some type - it helps to get food into the little one's tummy quickly.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Atlanta on

My three-year-old can stay seated quietly for a long time, but he's always been that way, even when he was little. A couple things we do is we bring books and a toy bag into a restaurant with us. These are toys that my children only get when we're sitting in public, so they don't get bored of them as quickly, and we change them up regularly.

Good luck.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

Is there anything there to occupy him? Is it a fine dining restaurant? Do you order several courses? My son is 4 and has been sitting nicely at restaurants since he was a baby. BUT we never get/got appetizers or dessert, bring activities, and do not bring him to "fine dining" restaurants. Look around when you go to restaurants and see how the other children are acting. Is your son acting significantly different than the other children? I think you can answer that yourself.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

I think this is normal. My DD does pretty well but not always and I think she is better behaved than most her age (partly due to personality). One thing that helps is prepping her "we're going out to eat so you will have to be on restaurant behavior" then letting her run around as much as possible before "get your wiggles out!" When she acts up I take her outside and have a talk. I'm also ready to get the food to go, if necessary (doing that once or twice will show you are serious). And, of course, lots of positive reinforcement when she is doing well. As others have said, snacks and activities are helpful. It won't be too much longer until you can have family restaurant time! You might want to consider only going to family friendly places or saving restaurants for date night. This is one battle I don't like to pick...

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

Most 3 yr olds have a hard time sitting still for any length of time.
We didn't even attempt child friendly fast food places until our son was 4.
By 6 yrs old, he was very well behaved in restaurants and we could take him anywhere.
Give him some time, and either get a sitter or do take out until then.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

My third child was similar. She had a VERY hard time sitting still from early on: hated the high chair, stroller, staying still at the dinner table, both at home and in restaurants, and at the movie theater, etc. It drove me crazy!
At age 11 she was diagnosed ADHD, so looking back her behavior made sense!
I'm NOT saying your kid has ADD/ADHD or anything else, it's just MY experience and something to keep in the back of your mind as your child grows and matures.
In the meantime, try to keep your son as busy at the table as possible. What usually worked for my daughter was play doh. I got into the habit of not letting her play with it at home so that when we went out to eat it was new and special and therefore it usually kept her occupied for a while :)
ETA: contrary to what others are saying I don't think three is too young to eat in a restaurant at all! If my ADHD girl could do it I imagine most kids could at that age (granted they have an activity to keep them occupied.)

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Albuquerque on

Um, yeah. He's three. He's simply incapable of being confined in such a boring environment. If you bring things for him to play with, he might be able to sit still for a quick meal, but why bring that kind of stress upon yourself? Save the restaurants until they're fun for everyone in the family.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I think this is very normal. I think what all us parents have to keep in mind is that kids can have very different personality types. Just because someone elses 3 year old can sit still, does not mean that they are better at parenting or disciplining. Perhaps sometimes it does, but I think the majority of times it means their kids are of a more easy going, quiet nature. I have an extremely strong willed, active 3 year old boy. That means I have to work extra hard to guide him in these situations, and it means he might not always be the perfect angel in these situations. I wont allow anything from him in a resturant that is obnoxious or dangerous, but I also have an understanding of his nature and I realize it is just not realistic for me to expect him to always be able to sit still for an extended period of time. For a parent of an easy going, quiet 3 year old to try to compare themselves to my strong willed, active 3 year old is like comparing apples and oranges. I wish that as parents, we would not be so quick to judge each other.
Best tips I have for going to the restaurant are: do something active/outside first if possible to burn some energy, bring toys/crayons/books/leapster to entertain them. I often end up ordering my sons food first since he has a hard time waiting (and his behaviour is worse if he is hungry), and then I often will tell him if his behavoiur is good that he can order a small ice cream sunday or something after he eats his regular food. Sometimes bribes are a good thing :0)

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

It's unreasonable to ask a 3 year old to sit still and be entertained watching other people look at menus! Not much to do except play with the sugar packets, you know? Do you take activities with you? We always kept a "restaurant box" in the car with special toys - they were also useful in waiting rooms. We never played with them at any other time, so they were always kind of exciting. Small toys that aren't noisy or have too many pieces are good - small puzzles, tic-tac-toe games using pegs or magnets, stickers and plain paper, coloring books, and so on. As the child gets older, increase the attention span of the toys.

Also ask for some of the child's food up front - if he'll eat carrots and ranch dressing or something else that doesn't require preparation, you can keep him active with a little food while the rest of the meal is being cooked. Or choose a restaurant with a salad bar, and get a small plate there for people to share. Let your child help you choose.

The other thing you can do is go to restaurants where there is something to look at - Chinese restaurants, for example, frequently have large fish tanks or koi ponds that are enjoyable to watch while you wait for your food.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Hartford on

The best thing to do is practice restaurant dining at home. You can also practice at more child-friendly restaurants where you're much less likely to get stares of doom from other patrons and more likely to get head tilts of empathy instead.

We've been very lucky that our children have all had excellent table manners in restaurants, although luck has little to do with it. I expect "restaurant manners" at home, when we're guests in someone's home even casually, and anywhere that we're out to eat. I've expected "restaurant manners" from them since they were old enough to sit in a high chair.

There have been MAYBE one or two instances where my special needs daughter had a situation that escalated into a near-meltdown in a restaurant and had to be removed from the place. I could tell her behavior was going to get out of control so I placed her order, left my husband with the other kids, and took her out to the car to do our soothing routine. When we went back in ten minutes later she was the model child until dinner was just about over, at which point she started fidgeting and showing signs of another meltdown so I removed her with all the kids and let my husband pack up and pay.

My point is that they learned early that poor behavior meant we would leave. That stands for wherever we are that we need to be or the kids want to be.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I think it's wonderful that you are teaching your child to behave in a restaurant.

Lately, I have noticed that children who are enjoying themselves are the ones whose parents are engaging them in conversation, rather than looking at their phones or zoning out. I also notice those who are eating at an early hour, when they are not tired, seem better able to control themselves. The bonus is that serious diners are usually eating later!

For me, it really is a pleasure to see parents and children talking and sharing as a family. All my best.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

Is he required to sit still for long periods of time in everyday ordinary life? If not then this is where you begin to practice with him. One of the many reasons I always took my kids to church was to help them learn how to sit confined for long periods of time. It will also help him when he hits school age.

Boys have it particularly hard in school when they haven't mastered sitting still.

A teacher friend of mine (who has a doctorate in teaching) explained it to me this way. They way the male brain is designed the synapses connect properly when the boys are active and moving around. The brain further develops outside of the womb. The female brain is different and can still develop those synapses without all of the added activity which is why little girls have a slightly less difficult time sitting still for long periods of time.

Yes the behavior is normal and yes you can work with him on this and by the time he becomes 4 he will be better and better but it will take consistency and loads of work on your part.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Springfield on

Totally normal! Some 3 year olds can handle it (my niece), and many cannon (my son). We bring things to occupy him, we take turns walking with him, we find things for him to color or play with, and we remind ourselves that he's 3.

Our oldest was like this, as well. He'll be 6 soon. He gets a little goofy if he has to wait too long, but he understands that he has to stay in his seat and sometimes it takes a little while for the food to arrive.

For the most part, we don't go out as much as we would like. We go to fast food or buffets because they don't take as long. Sometimes we get take-out so that we can eat the food that we really want to eat and the kids can play if we're taking too long. So much less stress!

Hang in there! He'll grow out of it.

And please don't think you are doing anything wrong. My brother used to think he was his wife were such great parents because their kids would sit still with their hands folded and my boys wouldn't. After spending more time with all of the kids and getting to know their personalities, we've both come to realize that they are simply different kids in good and challenging ways. His kids might be the "sit still" type, but mine are the "I do it myself" type and that has been a huge blessing. My 3 year old can completely dress himself (minus the diaper, though he wishes he could do that without help), and my 6 year old niece still needs help.

Kids are different!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Columbia on

Bring something to do, a little snack, and maybe a little game. Teach him to play tic-tac-toe (and only play it at restaurants). Show him the menu and tell him to find all the [letter of his first name].

Use the high chair instead of the booster. You can buckle him in.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Lakeland on

This is normal and he is still learning. Bring something to entertain him and keep reminding him that he needs to sit and behave. Don't be afraid to leave if you need to.

There was a question a few days ago about children’s behavior in restaurants and IMO they should behave or leave. No one around the table should have to just deal with annoying children.

I just kept reminding my daughter that she had to sit and behave and she has never really given me a hard time. She does get bored if we are out with a large group and are there for two hours or more, but now I just bring her iPod.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I think it's on the normal side of things, and you need to prepare for it. Bring soft, quiet toys. Be prepared to take turns walking him around while you wait. Take him out if he's being rude. Teach him at home how to sit and have a meal. I'll sometimes hear from parents that their child doesn't do x or y and then find out that it's never tried or trained at home so DUH!

Know that your child will have limits, but also know that you can still go out within those limits.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

It's normal. We bring books, crayons, and snacks. We always order her meal right away and have them bring it out as soon as it's ready. We do bribe her with dessert. If she is good, she can have dessert. By the time she is done dinner and dessert, we are done our meals. We also do our best to include her in the conversation. We ask about her day, even though I'm with her all day, I like to hear her persepective on the day. We ask her what she wants to do the next day, etc. We talk about her favorite books or characters. I think when she feels a part of dinner she behaves better. If she does act up, no dessert, and if she is really bad, I take her outside and we talk. I've had to take her outside a restaurant twice, and we've been going out to restaurants weekly since she was born.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

so my plan of attack in the restaurant is first to not use the booster or highchair (if you use one) until it is time to eat. so they can sit on my lap or on their own until that time and try to color for a bit. Once we put in our order my husband or I take the kids to the restroom. and we take our time. go potty (change diaper?) and wash the hands. hopefully we go to a restaurant that has lots to see (red robin, buca di beppo, etc) so we check out some of the stuff on the way back to our table. when we get back to the table we color together and play the games on the kids mat. If my kid cant quite play the game we will make up our own or even play I spy in the restaurant. by then our food should have come and they can get in their booster or highchair to eat. I figure the booster/highchair is good for 20 minutes tops and I dont want to waste that time before MY food arrives.



answers from Oklahoma City on

If I take the kids to a place where it is appropriate for kids to be then it's not so much a big deal for them to get up and move around once they are finished with their food. If he can't sit still he goes directly into a wooden high chair. If he doesn't like it he has the choice to sit down and stay sitting. If he can't control himself the high chair will make it more of a thought process for him to get up and down.

I swear if we go to a restaurant where kids are expected to sit down and be quiet so others can enjoy their quiet meal then I can guarantee I make sure the 5 1/2 year old is in a high chair. He is not going to bother anyone else or run amok.

You are the grown up, you tell him he's sitting in a high chair and you put him in it. That's all there is to it. He will cry the first few times so do it at places like Burger Kind and McDonalds for a while so he gets used to it. Then you can venture out in the adult restaurant world and he'll sit in the high chair just fine.



answers from Phoenix on

My DD was well behaved in restaurants at that age. You didn't mention consequences for not behaving/listening. Do you take him outside for a time out, or put him in a booster seat with a belt? If there's no punishment, then why would he listen? This goes for any situation, and I'm sure you know that. He's old enough to understand that he needs to sit when at a restaurant.

We went through a period when DD was 1 when we didn't eat at sit down restaurants. I suggest you do the same, or take him to a place that has a play area, where you can get in & out in under an hour. DD was pretty mellow at 3, so I guess we were lucky.

If you must go to a sit down place, bring lots of activities, or go after you've done something active. Maybe that will help.



answers from Los Angeles on

This is totally normal and your son may get better or he may be the type that will never want to sit. But the more you go out with him, the more he'll be used to sitting in a restaurant. I agree with what Jaycee said - don't use the booster seat until you are actually eating. Take a walk, bring books, toys, coloring book, etc. I don't agree with the people who order dinner for the kids first because then your kids are done eating and you are just beginning - so instead of eating you are entertaining your kids. I like to have everyone eat together so at least the adults get a chance to eat. Keep trying. It will get easier. Good luck!

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