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How to plan (and survive) a toddler birthday party

Categories: Kid Matters


By Samantha Jo Campen of Back To Me

I seem to have a knack for embracing the mild panic that surrounds planning my son’s birthday parties about six months in advance.  I guess my rationale is that most of my life lately feels like everything is pushed to the last minute in a fit of frenzy so let’s try and make this ONE THING thought out and executed in a Xanax-not-needed type of way.  Hey, it doesn’t hurt to have good intentions, but you can only plan for so much.  I just survived our son’s second birthday party and I’m happy with how it turned out–everyone had a good time, no one got hurt (always up in the air when toddlers are involved), and the house was intact when the throngs of people left.  My only regret was expecting it to be similar to his first birthday which, HA HA HA HA HAAAA!  He was crawling then.  He couldn’t talk.  He had no real opinions and only cared about the wrapping paper.  This year?  Was.  Different.  A few things I learned:

1.  When preparing the day before/day of: Send child away. I mean this with nothing but love in my heart, but if you’re having people over and need to clean, prepare food, set up and decorate it’s going to be near-impossible to get all of that done without losing your mind with a chatty toddler underfoot.  This might be a great time for a sleep over at grandma’s, or a day out with daddy.  Your kid won’t understand why they can’t touch the stuff on the dining room table or why please for the love DON’T DUMP ALL OF YOUR TOYS ON THE FLOOR MOMMY JUST ORGANIZED THEM.  It will keep both of you liking each other.  I promise.  You can do what you need to do and your toddler won’t have a fit before the bash.
2.  Say YES to people. You might have a few people ask, when they call or email you to RSVP, “Hey, can I bring anything?”  YES.  Say yes.  There is no shame in taking them up on their offer.  You are not Superwoman, and getting some help is never a bad thing.  Asking someone to bring a fruit salad, bags of ice, cookies, or veggies and dip isn’t rude and if they offered they will be happy to do it.  I’m the type of person who frets over having enough food so I always enlist friends in that department.
3. Make sure there is food for the munchkin crowd. You know what your kid will eat, but also keep in mind if there are other tiny people around that their palate may not be as diverse.  Crackers, fruit, cheese, juice and maybe a nugget of some kind should do the trick.  They may be biding their time for cake, but it’s good to get something substantial down their gullet so the sugar rush isn’t as deadly.
4.  Put someone else in charge of pictures and video. You and hubby will have your hands full chatting with guests, wrangling Birthday Toddler, and making sure the rest of the party runs smoothly.  You don’t want to get to the end of the day and realize you only got one photo of Aunt Louise bending over to get a kleenex from her purse.  Enroll someone else, preferably child-free so they can focus on the task at hand.  And make sure they know where the ‘ON’ button is.

5.  Make peace with the fact that there will be some tantrums. This is not a reflection on you or your child.  It’s just going to happen.  The day is overwhelming.  The schedule is off–maybe someone didn’t get a nap.  If there are other kids around, the idea of sharing Brand! New! Toys! might throw the little darling into a spiral of doom.  This was where I had no clue. I figured Theo would be just as delightful as he was at his first birthday party and that wasn’t fair to expect. All the other kids wanted to ‘help’ Theo open his presents and he got possessive.  As soon as the paper came off he had to have the toy right away, regardless of how thoroughly it was packaged (have scissors nearby but also out of reach).  He wanted cake right away and cried while we sang Happy Birthday to him because it took too long.  Sigh.  It is what it is.  Just go in knowing what you’re up against.
6.  Don’t have the cake on display until you’re ready to serve it. The children will circle like blood thirsty sharks and either casually pick at it throughout the party without you knowing or throw a fit at not being able to have any.  Uh, just trust me on this.  *cough*

Toddler birthday parties don’t have to feel like you’re herding cats.  Go in with a plan in place to save your sanity, but also be flexible as this is a new kid you have here.  Another year older.  Another year of perfected tantrums.  And with any luck, the kind soul who is capturing these beautiful memories, screaming or no, will have figured out how to work your camera.

Do you have any tips you’d like to add for planning (and surviving) a toddler birthday party?

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7 comments so far...

  • These are all spectacular ideas! I have a friend with a better camera than me who always graciously takes the photos at The Boy’s parties. It is SUCH a big help. This year, he’s a little older though, so maybe I can be less hands-on him & take some myself. Or make Daddy do it.
    My strategy this year is to Send Them Outside. (Fingers crossed it doesn’t rain. Crap, it’s definitely going to now, isn’t it?) Last year it DID rain, and 15 toddlers & their parents crammed into my house was a LITTLE stressful. Rain, rain, stay away.
    I’ll let you know how it goes…if I survive :)

    Clarabella  |  April 14th, 2010 at 3:21 pm

  • hehe! Ok, So let me finish laughing: “will circle like blood thirsty sharks” TOoo true and too funny!
    I could not agree with you more. For my daughters brithday this year, I asked my brother to play with her and we decoreated while she slept. Made life so much easier Yes, she was super sleepy in the party thanks to a missed nap! But towrds the end, she was chirpy, excited and yes: It was her day!

    GNSD  |  April 14th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

  • These were all awesome. I especially love the one about getting the kids out of the house. I’d like to do that on a non-party day, please.

    AndreAnna  |  April 14th, 2010 at 11:16 pm

  • One that I didn’t see mentioned but has worked great for us is the only invite as many kids as the age of the toddler. (plus or minus one) We have used this rule of thumb for every birthday celebration, and it has kept down the tantrums, mess, and chaos.

    The other thing I force myself to remember is that my toddler and preschooler do not need a crazy all out birthday bash to feel loved and celebrated on their birthday. It doesn’t matter if their best friend’s party was at the bowling alley, skating rink, etc. If that’s too much for our family, we don’t need to do it. I am aware that this has offended a couple parents who didn’t think our homey little celebration was exciting enough, but that’s their problem, not mine.

    LMJN  |  April 16th, 2010 at 11:22 am

  • I agree that keeping the number of the invited kids low is the recipe to minimize the tantrums and the chaos, but for some reason other parents throw huge birthday parties where they invite the whole preschool with siblings and families. As a result our “little” birthday parties do not seem that exciting in comparison.

    Stickers  |  April 16th, 2010 at 7:19 pm

  • A friend of mine had a great idea for his daughter’s 2nd birthday party. He got a couple of big poster boards and a bunch of crayons and stickers, put them on the floor, and had kids of mixed ages go to town on each one. (It was kinda set up as a contest to motivate the older kids, but there was no judgment in the end.) It kept all the kids busy, interacting, and (believe it or not) cooperating. It was fun to see what the two groups spontaneously created, and it will be fun years later to look back on where all the kids were at that particular age.

    SKL  |  April 18th, 2010 at 8:32 pm

  • By the way, I personally don’t feel the need to have birthday parties, as in doing up the house, inviting an assortment of people, etc. The only things I consider essential are Mom, a cake (or workable substitute) with candles and ice cream, balloons (because my kids think balloons are the best things ever), and a few gifts. If it happens that other people are around to celebrate, that’s great, but I don’t try to jump through hoops. I think this is probably the norm around here, since my kids have never been invited to (nor have I heard of) any “big birthday parties” where an assortment of non-related kids are invited.

    SKL  |  April 18th, 2010 at 8:39 pm