The airport toddler story: soothing with food

Recently I was traveling home from a long week of work, and while waiting for my flight to depart, I noticed a young couple approach my packed gate area with their young toddler, whom I guessed to be about 18 months old. He was strapped into his stroller and had a pacifier in his mouth.

He started to fuss a bit, so mom offered him a sip from her extra-large plastic cup of soda. “Want some of Momma’s pop?” she asked the toddler. He popped out his pacifier, took a sip, and Dad placed the pacifier back into his mouth. The child began to cry, arched his back, and reached toward Momma’s cup for more.  Momma said “No,” and replaced the pacifier. The child took the pacifier out of his mouth, wailed very loudly, and tossed it across the waiting area. Momma scrambled to grab it, while Dad pulled out a French fry from his bag of fast food and gave it to the little guy. The toddler quieted for a while, chomping on the fry, but soon began to point at the soda, arch his back, fuss, and eventually cry. The parents glanced at each other with a defeated look and gave the little guy some more soda.

As a mom, I completely understand trying to keep a young child entertained and quiet, particularly in a situation with adults, close quarters, and little patience. Believe me, I have had my fair share of these situations, especially when my four children were under the age of five years old! However, I knew something then that a lot of parents don’t understand today.

Babies are born hard-wired for the flavors of sugar and fat. That means that little ones are naturally biased to choose and like sweets and fatty foods. By six months, if they are exposed to salt, they will also develop a taste preference for this.

When babies and young toddlers are exposed to the flavors of sugar, fat, and salt, they solidify a taste preference and desire for these foods.

The first two years of life are an intensive period of growth, with a wide array of nutrients required (over 40 different ones)—every morsel of food needs to count toward growth, development, and future food preferences.

Babies and toddlers have tiny tummies. Fill those bellies up with empty calories such as those from soda, desserts, and fried foods and it becomes harder to get the right amounts of the right nutrition into them.

It’s a slippery slope when parents use food to pacify children. It teaches children that food is used to soothe and comfort, and over time, children may turn to food for comfort and soothing (and we all know what that can lead to…). We want children to learn to mostly associate eating with hunger (and sometimes pleasure), and nutritious food with growing a healthy and strong body and mind.

Cultivating a healthy eater begins on Day 1. Stop a moment to think about the potential long-term implications of giving young children fast food, treats, and sips of caffeine or sugar on his future food preferences and the dynamic you create around these foods.

Does it surprise me that the little guy in the airport wailed for more soda?


I just wish those parents knew what I know. When you know nutrition, you do better.


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About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is the author of Fearless Feeding and a Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist.


  1. I can definitely see both sides to this – these parents are setting themselves up for trouble if food is always the soother, but also flying with a toddler who is in a mood can be one of the most stressful things as a parent! Hopefully this was an act of desperate measure!


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