When your child won’t sit still at the table

When your child won’t sit still at the table
My child won’t stop fidgeting at the table. How can I help them sit still and eat?

Do you have a wiggly kid who just can’t sit still during meals? There are several reasons why they might feel the need to fidget. How can you help them sit still and eat?

How long can a child stay seated at the table?

The ability to sit still at the table varies from child to child and by age. On average, children are able to sit at the table for 2 to 5 minutes per year of life. For example, a 3-year-old can sit still for 6 to 15 minutes, a 5-year-old can sit still for 10 to 25 minutes, and by around age 7, children can sit still for about 15 to 35 minutes.

However, your child may be able to sit still for more or less time, depending on the circumstances. For example, a child who is enjoying their meal will sit for longer than a child who is tired when it’s time to eat.

Why do kids fidget at the table?

Your child may have trouble sitting still at the table for a variety of reasons:

Your child’s fidgeting is not a bad habit or an attempt to get attention.
  • They haven’t yet developed the muscles and stamina to sit in the same position for several minutes, which makes them unstable and uncomfortable.
  • They have an active temperament and need to burn off energy, but haven’t had enough opportunities to move during the day or before the meal.
  • They are tired at the end of the day and lack impulse control.
  • They aren’t hungry or don’t like the meal being served.
  • They don’t like sitting at the table because they’re bored, they don’t feel included in the conversation, they want to avoid stressful topics of discussion, or they’re distracted by screens (TV, tablet, cellphone).

How can you help your kid sit still at the table?

Here are a few strategies that can help you keep your child sitting at the table a little longer. Introduce them gradually so you don’t change your child’s routine all at once, as this could destabilize them.

  • Sit your child in a booster seat or place a small foot stool under their feet. This may help them feel more settled and move around less.
  • Try to move mealtime up if they seem too tired to sit still. If, on the other hand, your child is especially active, eat a little later to give them time to burn off energy by running, climbing stairs, or dancing in the living room, for example. If necessary, give them a stress ball or other object to fidget with while they eat.
Set realistic expectations: If your 5-year-old is only able to sit at the table for 5 minutes, for example, aim to work up to 10 minutes in a few weeks, not 25 minutes in a few days.
  • Ask your child to come and sit down only when you are ready to serve the food so that they don’t have to wait too long at the table. Have everything needed for the meal out on the table before you sit down (water, butter, bread, etc.). This will prevent you from standing up yourself and will set a good example.
  • Maintain a pleasant atmosphere at the table. Turn off screens and avoid stressful conversations and scolding.
  • Talk to your child and include them in the conversation. Ask questions about their day, like what story their teacher read today. When your child receives positive attention, they’ll be less likely to want to get up. If your child is younger or has limited language skills, talk to them about the food on the table (e.g., name the foods and their colours).
  • If conversations are a source of stress for your child, talk less or have a routine of simple, predictable questions. For example, instead of saying, “Tell us about your day,” ask, “Did you play outside today?”
  • Note what activity follows the meal (e.g., TV time or bath time). Your child may fidget or stand up if they’re anxious to leave the table to do this activity.
  • Ask yourself what is in your child’s sightline when they’re seated at the table (e.g., a wall, the yard, their equally fidgety brother across the table, the living room where all their toys are waiting for them). If what they’re facing is encouraging them to move and get up, you could try having them sit in a different spot.
  • Use visual or sound cues to indicate how long the meal will last. For example, a visual timer or quiet music that lets your child how long to sit still for. Gradually, your child will learn to recognize the music and anticipate when they can get up.
  • Avoid letting your child eat away from the table or eat standing up in other settings (e.g., snacks). It’s important to associate eating with sitting at the table.
  • When a meal is unusually long, let them get up and move around for a few minutes during the meal and then come back to the table.
  • If your child is over the age of 3, you can try using a motivation chart. This tool can help some children stay seated for longer. However, avoid using food, like dessert, as a reward (link in French) if they stay seated for the whole meal.
  • Praise your child when they sit still in their chair during the meal.

Things to keep in mind

  • A child’s ability to sit still at the table depends on their age and other factors.
  • There are many reasons why a child may fidget at the table (position on the chair, temperament, fatigue, atmosphere, etc.).
  • If your child is not included in conversations at the table, they may get bored and wiggle around more.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: March 2022


Photo: GettyImages/vitranc