By Nicole Gregory

Don’t stress yourself out planning a grandiose event; you, your tot and his guests will likely be happier with something that’s more on his scale.

When my son was about to turn 3, I was determined to create the most perfect birthday party ever: an expensive Thomas the Tank Engine cake with matching plates, tablecloths and streamers, and gourmet hors d’oeuvres for adults. But I was so anxious the day of the party that I kept saying “Not now!” when Charlie needed something.

With all the excitement, he refused to nap and got crankier by the minute. Soon after the party began, he cried when a game didn’t go his way, knocked his best friend to the ground and screamed when a child poked a finger into the cake. Other parents murmured sympathetic words, my husband retreated behind his camera and at the end of the day I collapsed in nervous exhaustion. Happy birthday? Hardly.

Now that Charlie is 11, I can laugh at how that day turned out so badly. My need to be Martha Stewart–perfect kept me from realizing how little it takes for a toddler to feel special and have fun. Now I know that a small party can be hugely enjoyable for everyone—and a relaxed mother is one key to success. How can you organize a birthday celebration that is truly happy for your toddler and you? Here are some tips:

Avoid toddler meltdowns

Invite fewer guests. Some parents swear by this rule: The number of toddlers at the party should be equal to the birthday child’s age. The idea behind this suggestion is to keep toddlers from becoming overwhelmed. It’s also easier to organize games with fewer children, and to keep an eye on all of them at once to make sure everyone’s safe.

Maintain your child’s routine. The birthday child will be happiest if her day follows a fairly normal schedule. “Make sure your toddler gets a good nap and a healthy meal before the party,” says Penny Warner, author of Kids’ Party Games & Activities (Simon & Schuster, 1993), among many others. If she’s overly tired or hungry, she won’t enjoy the festivities as much. Virginia Vincent-Orth of Los Angeles had her 2-year-old daughter’s party at 3:30 in the afternoon, after naptime. “That way I knew Sookie would be happy,” she says.


Be mindful of your child’s needs, says Warner. In the excitement of the day, don’t forget to make sure your child has food and is not getting overwhelmed. You might consider making your toddler’s room off-limits to guests to avoid the problem of kids wanting to play with your toddler’s toys—always a dicey situation.

Play a game that all the kids know. “Find out from your toddler’s preschool teacher some games the children play as a group, and plan on doing one as soon as everyone arrives,” says Sheila Ellison, author of How Does She Do It? 101 Life Lessons from One Mother to Another (HarperCollins, 2004). Playing a familiar game will help focus the toddlers and the party will less likely dissolve into chaos at the outset.

Keep the party short, says Warner. “Toddlers have minimal attention spans and they wear out quickly,” she says, suggesting it go no longer than an hour. “Have lots of simple activities for the kids to do. When they tire of one, move on to the next, or just allow free play with a handful of toys.”

Allow for some quiet time. “It’s hard being the center of attention all day, so allow your toddler some quiet breaks, even during the party,” says Warner. I remember attending the birthday party of a little girl who retreated upstairs to her room halfway through the celebration while her friends continued playing without her. Her easygoing parents did not force her to come down. After about 20 minutes, the girl happily rejoined the group on her own.

“Don’t open presents with other toddlers there,” says Ellison. If you do, you’re asking for trouble. Toddlers will want to play with the birthday child’s new toys, leading to an inevitable tug-of-war for the brightest, shiniest new thing. For Sookie’s birthday, Vincent-Orth and her husband asked that guests bring no gifts at all. “She doesn’t need more toys,” says Vincent-Orth, “and besides, I try to be selective about the toys she gets.”


Tips for YOUR sanity

Enlist helpers. Put your mother, husband, sister or other parents in charge of setting the table, moving furniture out of the way, taking pictures or whatever you can’t or don’t want to do. Ask your toddler to count out paper plates or arrange plastic forks. Allow the party to be a group effort.

Make it fun for you. Invite some adults whose company you enjoy, or be creative in ways that are fun for you. Vincent- Orth likes taking photographs. Since she held her daughter Sookie’s party at a park near a small airport, she photographed each family wearing old-fashioned fl ying goggles and scarves. Later, she posted these photos on her website.

Remove pens, markers and items you cherish. At one toddler party I attended, a child found a black marker, pulled the top off and made a long streak across the back of a beautiful white sofa before anyone could stop him. I made a mental note at the time: Put all markers out of kids’ reach. It’s also a good idea to remove valuable vases or furniture so you don’t have to worry about them getting broken or damaged during the party.

Keep your sense of humor. “Things will go wrong, so be fl exible and roll with the punches,” says Warner. “Your toddler won’t care if the cake isn’t perfect or the decorations fall down. Just take a deep breath and enjoy this special time.”


Keep it contained
Have the party in one or two rooms that are easy to childproof. If you have it in a park, make sure parents are aware that they’re responsible for keeping an eye on their own children and point out hazards such as ponds, streams, hills or drain pipes.

Beware of balloons
Balloons cause more choking deaths than any other child-related product. Consider using other decorations instead.

Don’t serve finger foods
Unless you’re sure other parents will be on handto monitor invitees, skip hot dog pieces, grapes, raisins, small carrots and other foods children can choke on.

Board your pets
Many dogs and cats run from toddlers or will bite or scratch when handled too roughly. If you can, consider sending your dog or cat to a boarder or friend’s house until the party’s over.

Nicole Gregory is a Los Angeles-based writer who has learned that the less she worries over her son’s birthday parties, the more fun he (and everyone else) seems to have!


Make it a success with these helpful tips and ideas.

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