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First Fest: Real-Mom Tips

The guests had been invited and the chocolate cake made, and the house was as clean as it was ever going to be. My husband and I had planned a relatively small event for our son Cole's first birthday party  -- we'd invited both sets of grandparents, some neighbors, and a few friends  -- but we were anxious. Not only did we feel the pressure to be gracious hosts, but this was also our chance to show off our firstborn.

Three hours, two exhausted parents, and one overstimulated baby later, the party was over. Even though Cole cried when we sang "Happy Birthday" and spat up on a neighbor's blouse, everyone delighted in watching our baby take his wobbly steps and smile his four-toothed grin. My husband and I basked in our guests' appreciation of him.

Lesson learned: No matter how hard you plan, your child's first birthday party will hit a snag or two, since babies are so unpredictable. The good news is that no one expects  -- or even wants  -- perfection. (Besides, you might as well get broken in for party surprises down the road.) These reality-tested ideas can help you celebrate the big day with less stress and more joy:

The guest list
The standard advice is to have one guest for each of your child's years, but this often goes out the window. That's because the party isn't so much for your baby as it is for you and the family and friends you want to help mark the day. This can add up to a crowd.

If your party is growing larger than, say, 20 or so, consider scaling back. While some 1-year-olds can handle being around a lot of people, many are overwhelmed. Jillian and Brent Pierson of Eagle Rock, CA, threw a first-birthday bash for 50 people at a nearby park and museum for their daughter Taite, now 2. "She clung to me the whole time, looking serious," Jillian remembers. "It was only after most of the guests went home that she started walking around and having a good time."

Alison Bell's last feature for Parenting was "Look Who's Crawling," in the August 2000 issue.

Location, location, location

Having the party away from home can allow you to host a large group  -- without having to clean up. But with an at-home party, the birthday baby will often do better because she's in a familiar environment where she feels safe and comfortable.

Time it right
Schedule the party after naptime so your baby is at his best, and plan to wrap things up before suppertime so you can return to your normal routine. Keep the event short  -- one and a half to two hours  -- and note an end time on the invitation to ensure that most guests will leave promptly.

Look to lighten the load
Ask friends and relatives to help out by bringing a dish or helping serve drinks and food. And keep the menu simple: maybe chips and dip, cold cuts and bread, and a salad or two.

Besides enlisting the help of her mom and two godmothers during a first-birthday party for her son Carlton Wesley, Carolyn Wright Fraser of Lithonia, GA, also lined up her son's godfather to tape the video and her dad to snap photos because she knew she'd be too busy to document the event. "And I actually got to be in a few shots for a change," she says. (Try to use high-speed film, such as 400, and keep indoor lights bright so you don't need to use a flash, which can startle babies.)

If lots of kids will be coming, consider hiring a neighborhood teen to supervise them so their parents can relax and enjoy themselves (and you don't become the default babysitter). You might also recruit preteen or teen guests for help setting up, passing out plates, or cleaning up.

That's entertainment!

If the only children attending the party are fellow 1-year-olds, you needn't plan any special activities  -- a few age-appropriate toys spread out on the floor will be all the diversion they demand. To reduce scuffles, have a few duplicates on hand, such as three balls instead of just one.

If older kids will be coming, don't assume that they'll amuse themselves. At Cole's party, there were a few other children, ranging in age from 2 to 6. Because I didn't have anything for them to do, they ran laps from the kitchen to the master bedroom and played with my hand-carved wooden animals. So set up games or an activity, such as a crafts table where kids can string pretzels or Cheerios to make edible necklaces, or use fabric markers to decorate pillowcases (you can buy inexpensive white ones or ask everyone to bring an old one). You can also create different "fun stations" by setting out various playthings (borrowed if necessary), such as train sets or a plastic easel, crayons, and paper. If you have the room, put out larger toys, such as collapsible nylon tunnel-cube sets.

If the birthday girl starts to cry or fuss, give her a break from the party by taking her into a quiet room and reading a book together or just holding her. "After about ten minutes, most children will recover, and you can then rejoin the fun," says Sherry L. Warner, Ph.D., a psychologist in Monterey, CA. "If your baby is reluctant at first, get her involved in playing with a toy, and she'll get back into the rhythm pretty quickly."

While the adults will be happy just socializing, they may enjoy putting together a time capsule. Ask everyone to write down a memory or thought about your baby and then read each one out loud. Seal their notes, along with a picture of your little one, in a container; place it in a safe place, not to be opened until she turns 18.

Let him eat cake!
Drape a big bib, smock, or towel on your baby and let him dig into his piece of birthday cake with his hands. Ric and Christine Damm of Green Lake, WI, served two of them  -- an ice cream cake for the guests and a small baked one for their baby girl, Morgan. "That way, she had her own cake and could do whatever she wanted to it," says Ric.

As far as singing "Happy Birthday" goes, you might want to limit the performers to just Mom and Dad. Fifteen people bursting into song can easily startle your baby into tears, as it did my son Cole. It was nerve-racking enough to have everyone staring at him without a sudden explosion of noise.

Get the goods
Party favors are by no means required, but if you'd like to send guests home with a little souvenir, consider a teething toy or a board book for baby guests. For older kids, it's all about quantity versus quality, says Warner, so pack goody bags with inexpensive but reasonably sturdy prizes, such as stickers, bubbles, kazoos, and crayons. (Avoid candy  -- the kids will get enough sugar eating the cake and ice cream.)

Finally, wave goodbye to everyone, collapse happily on the sofa, and marvel that your little one is really a year old.

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