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A Baby-Friendly Big One

Every parent wants her child's first birthday party to be special. But is your idea of fun what's really best for your baby?

"Parents have good intentions of hosting a wonderful celebration, but sometimes they don't take into account a one-year-old's personality and attention span," says Sonya Moore, founder of Tots Unlimited, in Albuquerque, NM, an educational program for young children. "At this age, kids are prone to fears, such as stranger anxiety, and can become overwhelmed and upset from too much excitement."

Whether it's a small gathering in your home or something more elaborate, here's how to stave off a little one's meltdown on the big day:

Have a lean guest list You can invite just a few relatives and their kids, plus grandparents. Or, if you want to include playmates, keep it to no more than five kids with their parents. A bigger group will only overload your child's circuits.

Seek a baby-friendly site Your backyard or a park is ideal. The kids can crawl or toddle in the grass, and if they spill juice, who cares? But if you don't want to gamble on the weather, or if you're looking for a place away from home, you may want to consider such fun, low-stress locations as a family-entertainment activity center, a kid-oriented gym, or even your daycare center. These settings may be familiar to your baby; in addition, parties are often managed by the facility's staff, which gives parents more time to enjoy the event.

Watch the clock The best time of day for a party is when your child is most alert and calm - usually in the morning after a nap. Keep the shindig to no more than an hour and a half. Longer gatherings or those held late in the day are likely to find your baby low on both energy and patience.

Don't entertain lavishly Many shows, games, or outings will overstimulate a 1-year-old. "Young children may also be easily frightened by clowns or people dressed as cartoon characters," says Moore.

Instead, plan a short sing- and clap-along session with some of your child's favorite songs. For a backyard party, supply push toys, tents, or tunnels, and if possible, a sandbox or digging area. Indoors, create a designated "carefree" play space: Remove furniture and anything breakable, and set out a variety of age-appropriate toys.

Cater to kids For a morning party, the only food you'll need will be the cake and some juice. If you're scheduling close to lunchtime, stave off empty-tummy fussing with nutritious finger foods, such as fruit slices, soft bread sticks, and bite-size pieces of bagels and cooked pasta. (Stay away from items that present a choking hazard, such as grapes, nuts, popcorn, marshmallows, and hard candies.)

Avoid present tension Don't create a gift-grabbing free-for-all by having your child open packages during the party. Put the parcels out of sight during the festivities, and explain to the guests that you'll be opening them later. "When the celebration stays low-key," says Moore, "everyone will be happier."

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