Very few parents would dispute that toddlers can be difficult to read. While they might be able to communicate more than they did as babies, many of them still aren't able to use the exact words necessary to get their point across, and they definitely have difficulty with concepts that are a little more abstract, like hunger, for example. That's exactly why you need to be on the look-out for these signs your toddler is hungry, not tired, because they're not very easy to tell apart.
We all do it, offer our kids a snack when they're hanging onto our knees whining something unintelligible. But experts say that it's important that you know your kid is hungry before blindly offering snacks. Pediatric dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell explained on Bellamy's Organic's site that that toddlers and small children actually have a difficult time understanding the true feeling of hunger. Giving a child snacks when they aren't truly hungry can be problematic for them in regulating and responding to their feelings of hunger as they grow older. In fact, according to Burrell, "This results in a child that learns to eat in response to a number of feelings (not just hunger), which leads to overeating." And that, in turn, can lead to an adolescent or adult who eats in response to their emotions, rather than their hunger level.
Differentiating between hunger and exhaustion with a toddler is easier said than done, but here are a few tips for figuring out exactly what your little one needs most — and for teaching them how to know when they're actually hungry or not.
If your toddler is getting irritable and whining for candy canes (I know one such toddler very well), chances are, she's actually more tired than hungry and is starting to melt down while struggling to explain her discomfort. On the other hand, if your toddler is asking (or even whining) for a healthy snack, that can be a sign that their belly needs some fuel. Belly Belly reminded readers that healthy snacks can actually help prevent toddler meltdowns: "Healthy snacks will help prevent mood swings and difficult [behavior] due to low blood sugar levels."
Burrell has a quick trick for ascertaining whether your kiddo is actually hungry: offer them a bland snack, like an apple or other piece of fruit, rather than crackers or sweets. She explained, "If they reject that food type you can be happy they are not really hungry, but are just looking for something tasty to put in their mouth." That's not a bad test to give yourself if you're prone to indulging in unhealthy snacks between meals and not feeling so hot about it.
Kids, especially very young ones, often communicate hunger and tiredness in similar ways: by fussing, whining, or starting to show less than desirable behavior like throwing toys or making a mess. One clue that your kiddo is suffering from low blood sugar instead of needing an early bedtime is that your toddler "resorts to crying, fussiness, banging toys and temper tantrums if hunger takes over," noted an article on Gerber's site (and they're a company that knows a few things about feeding small humans). If it's not naptime or bedtime, try offering your toddler a healthy snack to see if that curbs his irritability.
If your toddler seems more panicked she usually does when she is in need of a nap, it could be hunger causing her anxiety. “Hunger is an anxious feeling,” said Laura Oyama, a professor of early childhood education at Toronto’s Humber College, to Today's Parent. “It undercuts a young child’s need to feel safe," which can make your child's tantrum a little more intense or wild.
If your kid is getting irritable around mealtime, that's a clear sign that they're hungry. This can be tricky timing with both lunch and dinner, because often your toddler is heading for bed shortly thereafter. If you are running into mealtime melt downs, consider moving the timing of his lunch or dinner up so that it's not coinciding with bedtime quite so much.
Registered dietician Natalia Stasenko suggested an easy tip for helping your child eat before they get overdone on Real Mom Nutrition, "Try serving dinner 30 minutes earlier so he eats when his energy levels are a little higher."
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