4 Year Old Not Eating by Herself

Updated on November 15, 2010
T.P. asks from Portland, OR
18 answers

Hi moms, you've been very helpful before so i'm asking your opinion again. My daughter turned 4 in September and we still "need" to feed her other wise she would not eat. She would eat pancakes/ waffles/french toast in the morning because they have honey on them, but would not eat a sandwich, soup, dinner. She' s able to, but she's just playing during meals. I literally need to seat next to her and tell her to eat at every bite or finally i give up and feed her. We are always late at preschool because of this and all the time ends up with me angry and her crying. I give her 15 minute to eat by herself and then i step in. With my help it takes her 30 minutes to finish 2 pancakes, fruits and sausage. She has her lunch at preschool, but she never eats it. she's just playing with her fingers, with her food, sings.....She has a lot of energy and running around all day and I feel like if im not feeding her she would be malnourished. I know kids will eat when they are hungry, but specially in the morning we have a time frame. Is she at the age where she should be told you have 30 minutes to finish your breakfast or....(you don't go to preschool is not an option for us). We're having another one in march and i'm horrified thinking that i will end up breastfeeding and feeding them all day. What to do?

3 moms found this helpful

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So What Happened?

Thank you very much for your great responses. First I'm happy to find out I'm not the only one having to take this battle and second I'm glad to find out that actually there is something that WE can do. I really have to give extra credit to Sandy L, who told me I need a counselor. I consider Mamapedia a free counseling session. We start a new approach towards meal times, yesterday and I already see an improvement. I kinda knew I am the one who need to change but hearing it from other moms makes me more assertive. I'm not asking her to finish her meals, but she doesn't get "treats" like cereal, or bread and Nutella....unless she finishes her meal. She cannot be full of one thing and still hungry for another, right? And I never forced her on things that I know she doesn't like. Thank you again.

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answers from Portland on

Try some different things. Don't feed her in the morning & see if she will eat her lunch, maybe give her 4 ounces of just to drink.


answers from Santa Fe on

My son was like this - he was just too distracted and energetic to want to sit still and eat. I know this could be come a bad habit, but I started having him watch a movie on the laptop while he was eating breakfast or lunch and he would eat a lot more. I still had to feed him myself at times! Now at 6 I never have to do this. It's frustrating and I know what you are going through. My friend's daughter was like this as well and she took a more strict approach. She would give her a time limit (30m) and at that time she would take the food away and make her daughter wait w no snacks till the next meal. Her daughter learned fast to eat at mealtimes!

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answers from Biloxi on

I'm probably going to get berated for this, but seems to me your 4-year old knows exactly what she is doing and how to manipulate you. I think you need to stop feeling guilty about whether she is eating enough and enforce the rule "30 minutes to eat or you go to school hungry". Preschools have meal times so she won't starve. Besides...who is feeding her at preschool when you are not there to do it for her? It is you that is allowing this to happen. Stay firm...if you say it, mean it. It's tough for us moms because we feel we aren't doing enough and we definitely don't want our children to be unhappy right?

My oldest daughter had a thing of throwing up whenever she cried too hard. I'd stop whatever disciplining, clean it all up and then baby her for going through the ordeal. It took me awhile to realize that she was using this against me. As hard as it was for me to do, the next time she started "gagging", I handed her a towel and said, "Oh, when you're done, you can clean it up yourself..your punishment still stands". She never threw up again. She was 3 years old.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

***Adding This:
Regarding your having another baby in March... well, your Daughter is presently 4 years old... you NEED to teach her... HOW TO GET THINGS (food) herself... meaning, keep foods prepped for her ahead of time. Cut up fruit, string cheese, yogurt, keep a cupboard filled for her with things she can reach and get herself. Healthy stuff.
My son is 4. He can... get is own water, even warm stuff up in the microwave, he will put Saran wrap on leftovers and stick it back in the fridge etc. I keep covered kiddie cups in the fridge for him of milk. I make things... accessible and 'able' for my kids to get and feed themselves. Sure, I make food for them and cook. But I ALSO do things this way too... which helps me, helps them to be self-sufficient and cuts down on time.
My kids, eat fine, we have healthy stuff not junk around, they don't go crazy with just 'snacking' all day. They eat their meals. BUT they also can, get things for themselves too. I taught them how.
BEFORE your 2nd baby comes... I would, teach your daughter... how to do things. Also teach her... that Mommy will breastfeed just like you did with her... too. ALWAYS explain... ahead of time before baby comes home... what will happen... so that she is not all 'shocked' about her life once baby comes home. That is what I did with my daughter, who was almost 4 years old, when I had my 2nd baby. It helps a great deal.

The 'serving size' for a Toddler, is in terms of Tablespoons.
How much are you expecting your Toddler to eat?
Maybe she is just eating until she is 'full'... but on her plate there is still food left on it? Kids, when they are full... get distracted and scamper off.
Or maybe she is just not hungry.... ?

And some kids are just 'grazers'... meaning, they do NOT eat a ton in one sitting... they pick and eat throughout the day..... only if they are hungry and only until they are full. My son is like that. But my daughter is the type that will eat all at one sitting.
So for my son, I have accessible foods/snacks for him.... on the coffee table, in which he can 'graze' on. That works for him.
I never have to 'force' my kids to eat...

My kids and even myself, I am not 'hungry' immediately after waking. My stomach takes time to get hungry. I am not a real morning eater.
So, I just grab a banana or something.
My daughter, will have a yogurt or an apple. Even just that, makes her full.
My son, too.

She will not get malnourished.

If she does not eat within that time frame... then oh well.
A kid that age, has no concept of time frames....

I have found that in the morning 'rush' of things and time frames... I give my kids things to eat that is easy for them to 'eat.' For example, I make the night before, smoothies. In the morning, my kids will have one full glass of it. It makes them full, provides energy for them, and is healthy. Smoothies...are a "meal" in a drink.
Maybe try that.

Or maybe, your daughter will eat something else.
See what your daughter WILL eat. Kids are fickle.

Don't worry, She will not get malnourished nor starve.
At Preschool... do they have a snack time???
pack things for her, that she will eat.

I wouldn't fret over it, though I know it is frustrating.
Just find and make, what she WILL eat.
As I said, my kids in the morning are not into 'eating.' BUT they will have the smoothies I make... and they are getting a whole bunch of fruits in it, milk, and I put peanut butter (a protein) in it. Which they love.
My way of making smoothies is:
1 banana
Other fruits I have on hand (just a few chunks).
A 1/2 apple
Peanut Butter
I blend it all together and voila! It is good!
Just add enough milk to get the consistency you want for the smoothie.

all the best,

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Austin on

Do not feed her again.
Let her know that meal time is a time to eat and you will give her. 15, 20 minutes.. however long it takes the rest of you to eat as a family. If she has not finished and wants a few more minutes, you can allow this as long as she is really eating. .. If she refuses.. then it is HER OWN CHOICE.

As mothers we feel like we are failures if our children will not eat, but in reality, your child will not starve herself. If you keep feeding her healthy choices, she is at the age she can eat or she can do without..

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answers from Houston on

Just stop feeding her. It has become a control issue and food shouldn't be a battle. My son is just like this (although he is 2 1/2) and I have just given up the fight. It's a lot less stressful. If they don't eat, they'll be hungry and they will learn the hard way. She will not be malnourished, I promise you. Two pancakes, fruit and sausage seems like a huge breakfast for a preschooler, so perhaps she is overwhelmed by the amount of food on her plate. Sometimes, my kids will eat more than you could imagine would fit in a little kid's stomach and sometimes, I wonder how they survive on what they are eating, but it's their decision (to a point) and at 4 years old, she is old enough to learn the consequences of not eating (hunger). You really do have to take the focus off of this. Tell her that she has X amount of time to eat and set a timer if you want. Then, it's time to get dressed, brush hair and teeth and get out the door for school. This will help her to learn the timeframe she has and then leave it at that. You can echo a reminder or two, but don't harp on it and let HER do it. Don't feed her anymore. Ask her doctor if you want to make yourself more comfortable about it, but I GUARANTEE you she won't starve. Good luck! I know it's hard to let it go, but my son is healthy even though he is incredibly picky and hardly eats sometimes and we are all happier without the constant fights over food.

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answers from Seattle on

I have a daughter who is not very good at eating, so i 've done a lot of reading and trying things. I think the standard advice would be to put her food in front of her, tell her what the time line is, and let her go. Let her know what meals she will be fed, and how quickly she needs to finish. If she eats, great. If she doesn't, well she will learn from natural consequences that this is a bad idea. If she dawdles and plays and needs to leave before she finishes, so be it. Expect a few bad weeks while adjusts to the new regime, but most people who use this approach see improvement quickly.

I think that by feeding her and paying attention when she is fooling around encourages that behavior. Let her know you have faith in her ability to feed herself, and then let it go.

We've tried this approach with some success. Nothing else we've done has helped. Good luck!

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answers from Seattle on

I know that you really care about making sure that she eats and all, but what I am going to say to you is really simple. This is a power struggle. You need to stop feeding her. It is not going to be easy. She will cry and make it really hard at first. You have to not give in and your partner will have to support you.

Tell her at each meal time that you are not going to feed her any more. She will have to feed herself. Give her her food, both you and your husband should eat your normal amount of food in your normal time. Talk to her and all.

Ignore the fact that she is not eating. Do not feed her. Don't look at her food. This will begin the power struggle.

When you are done, pick up the dishes. Pick her up and put her down from the table. If she fusses or cries because she hasn't been fed, tell her meal time is over and she had her time to eat.

At this point you will have to decide if you want to put her back up to eat again or wait until snack time or the next meal. (Do this on a day when you won't have to go anywhere on time.) Your choice...

I recommend that you make her wait some time even if she cries or throws a fit, so that she knows that she has to feed herself during meal time, and not wait to be fed, or throw a fit, and have mother give her extra time after meal time is over (and begin another power struggle).

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answers from Norfolk on

She knows by now you are going to make easy and just feed her...you can give her a warning but you shouldn't step in to put food in her mouth. It is frustrating because you know how she will be if she doesn't eat. But a couple of days of her going without isn't going to hurt her but teach her a lesson.

After 10 mins give her a warning that time is almost up give her 5 more mins then just remove the food from the table and tell her time to put shoes on or whatever would normally come next. She will then probably ask for the food back. Once she sees your not going to step in to feed her she might get it for herself.

Now warning she might wait until you are ready to walk out the door then say hey you didn't feed me.

Kids don't have that ability to track mins...so just telling her 30 mins to eat then nothing won't work. You have to show by taking the food away after 15 mins. This will still send the message and allow her time to eat if she is hungry. Make sure she does something else to get ready then ask after 5 mins if she wants her breakfast. That gives her 10mins plenty of time to eat something.

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answers from New York on

You don't need to feed her. You do it because you are over worried about how much she will eat. If you cannot stop this behavior on your own you need to go to counseling to find out why you are so worried about her nutrition. she sounds healthy! "full of energy and running aorund!" and if a healthy child goes without food for a few days she will be fine. ( children will often not eat for days when they don't feel well) malnutrition comes from MONTHS of poor food choices. Offer smaller amounts of food, a half a sandwich or one pancake and a slice of fruit. After 15 minutes take it away. If she eats just a few tiny bites of healthy food a day, drinks a little milk and takes a multi vitamin she will NOT suffer from bad health. It sounds like she's never learned to know when she is or isn't hungry because you are completely controlling the food she consumes, not her. not allowing her to experience hunger, means she doesnt regard meal time as a time her quench her hunger. If you allow these issues to continue you could open the door for anerexia or other issues. She needs to learn how much food she wants and needs to eat. IF you wait to make changes right before the baby is born she will have issues with the baby! and she will know this is because of the baby not because she is old enough to feed herself and decide what to eat. I urge you to talk to a pediatrician and a counselor to solve this BEFORE March. Tell her preschool about the changes your are making and your concerns so they will be understanding if she is cranky or hungry because she skipped breakfast and they will allow her a snack as necessary. (I'm a teacher and can tell you plenty of kids come to school on an empty stomach because they are too tired to eat in the AM and they wait till snack time to eat.)
I know it will be hard for you to watch her skip meals but you CAN do it because it is the BEST thing you can do for her right now. good luck!

one more question Is she filling up on milk or juice?

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answers from Dallas on

Sounds like you need to put your foot down and stop feeding her. If she cant focus then you might need to consult her dr about it.

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answers from Portland on

My son is like that. He's 3 and it's driving me crazy. The Ped. said don't feed him, but what is a mother to do... He eats pretty well at breakfast and lunch and won't eat dinner. I haven't been giving snacks unless we are out playing and he's really burning off calories.

At dinner, won't eat, even his favorites. So, I wrap up his meal on his plate and he gets it for breakfast. If he doesn't eat it then or at least half of it, then he doesn't get his cereal (he loves his cereal). This has helped a lot. He started eating a little bit more at night. I get about every other night now.

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answers from Portland on

Hi T.,

I was noodling on your post last night as I went to sleep and thought of the book "Taking Charge" by JoAnne Nordling. I've been recommending this book to the families of the children I teach/care for for years, and thought it could be helpful for your situation, given that your daughter was exhibiting a strong attention-getting behavior.

"Taking Charge" is all about helping parents understand the different kinds of behaviors and attentions we give our children, and helps us to find great ways to make put some challenges squarely back into our child's laps (such as the one you posted on) while helping us find the *best* times to give our children attention for the most positive results. When I was relatively new in working with children, I found this book both instructive and insightful, and several preschools I know use this book as their standard for discipline and adult/child interactions around disciplinary issues.

Your daughter has a challenge--to eat her own food in a reasonable amount of time. She will likely miss the attention she was getting when you were feeding her, and so this must be replaced in positive ways, or new negative attention-getting behaviors will develop in order to maintain that previous level of attention. You are obviously very caring and concerned, and I hope your new way of feeding works out for you over time. (You may have to give it a couple weeks in order to change the dynamic, but don't give up!! :)

All my best and again, the book's worth checking out!



answers from Seattle on

Yes, put a time limit on meals. That's what we've had to do with our almost four-year-old. We had to start saying "the kitchen is closed in 30 minutes, so get enough to eat before breakfast" or whatever meal. He has had to go to bed hungry a couple of times, but then he remembers to eat his dinner at least. We are having a huge problem with this at the moment and are also having to feed him at times. We have 15-month-old twins who we also have to feed, so time is very limited and it's very annoying that he won't sit and eat anymore... not that he was ever a good eater. We started the time limit thing about six months ago and it works most of the time, which is good. Otherwise you may have to just let her go hungry once or twice and she probably won't forget it and will eat up when you tell her the kitchen is closing or whatever...


answers from Eugene on

Feed her in a pleasant manner. Make a game of it. Allow more time. I can relate. I was the skinny kid for whom eating was a chore. Most mealtimes produced anxiety until I was twelve years old. At age four and five my aunt made my breakfast and sat with me spooning the food in until I had eaten all of it.
What we did not know is that most breakfast foods were allergens for me. Breakfast was making me sick but mostly subacute. Hives from time to time from an unknown reason.
Once I grew up I ate lunch for breakfast. No bread, no pancakes, no pork, no chicken, no cheese, no dairy products and much later on I had the majority of my allergies removed. This cannot be done in the USA due to the AMA and Big Pharma.
My children had some of the same allergies so I kept goats and they had dairy products from goats. They did not have a reaction to bread. We ate an organic vegetarian diet.
Don't buy prefab foods they are full of toxins. They have colorants in them and preservatives and high fructose corn syrup.
Educate yourself about diet and as you change your diet your child will eat.



answers from Portland on

If she understands cause and effect over several hours she will understand that she's hungry because she didn't eat.

My kids don't naturally eat until 10am, but schoolday breakfast is at 7:30, and they have learned to eat it (and I've learned to pack them bigger snacks for the 10-ish snack break, and they've learned to eat those snacks VERY QUICKLY)--I think possibly the thing I hate very very most about school is the ridiculously unhealthy, not-listening-to-your-body eating habits it requires of children (and parents).

I'd say at first, for at home meals, you give her as much time as it takes to eat, but I think time limits are perfectly fine too. But, just to give a perspective from my family, with my four kids, 45 minutes to an hour is how long it *naturally* takes them to eat a meal, when we are sitting and just eating/talking/etc. until we decide we are done (again, school breakfasts are ridiculous easy-eat-shove-food-fests and don't count, and even that takes them 20 minutes : P! ). (Breakfast like that takes me three, tops, and normal meals, 15--so my already-societally-programmed speed with my grown up mouth and teeth is not a useful measure for their performance ;).)

Hope this helps, and remember kids ALWAYS get worse before they get better (gotta see if that rule *really* changed, or if Mom is 'just saying that' ;) ... SIGH!!!).




answers from Yakima on

I had this battle myself! It is definitely a power struggle between you two. I recently purchased a very cute ladybug timer from bed, bath and beyond and set it to 30 minutes from the time my daughter sits down to eat. She now knows that when the ladybug's face is facing her, the timer is about to go off and her plate will be taken away. So far, it's worked like a charm! I think it's the visual of seeing the time (I had used the microwave's timer to no avail) counting down. I hate the thought of rushing thru a meal, but if I let her sit there on her own, sometimes she'll be there for 2 hours, goofing around!!!! Grrrrr!
Good luck!



answers from Bellingham on

You've got some great responses, hopefully some that will work for you. I just want to commiserate and add my experience with my daughter who has been diagnosed ADHD and has sensory issues (she is nine now). Not being able to sit still and focus on eating has always been a problem, as well as having serious food sensitivity issues that make her a very picky eater. I did try to "teach her a lesson" by letting her be hungry if she didn't eat, but it didn't work for us. And when blood sugar issues make behavioral problems worse, I often fell into trying anything to get them to eat - so the preschool teacher wouldn't have to deal with her melting down when she is hungry and grumpy etc. She really has a strong aversion to certain tastes, textures and smells. Working with an occupational therapist has helped to get her to expand her food choices and settle down and eat better. Good luck!

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