Happier Birthdays for Toddlers

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It’s a common scenario. You’ve planned a really fun birthday party for your 3 year old, and you’re about to move on to your third game when she has a complete meltdown. She is crying and rolling around on the ground. She is distressed. Plus, it is seriously embarrassing.

Don’t feel bad. This happens all the time. It could be the result of tiredness, low blood sugar, or overstimulation. Here are a few toddler party planning tips to decrease the likelihood of birthday party tantrums from both the guest of honor and her friends.

Timing. If you are planning the party, take a cue from toddler playgroups and fitness classes and choose mid-morning. At 10 or 10:30 a.m. children are rested, awake, and ready to show off the best of their personalities. Whether you are throwing the party or attending as a guest, be sure your child is well rested. Plan to have the party last no more than 2 hours. After that amount of time, all the kids (and parents) will be ready for some rest.

Guests. It is always hard to limit the guest list, but doing so is often the best thing for you and your child. Try using your child’s age as a guide, and allow the same number of guests as years your child is old. For example, a 3 year old would invite three friends and their families.

Attire. While it may seem like a good idea at the time, planning on a super fancy party outfit for your child might not make the most sense. All but the fanciest kids are most comfortable when they can move freely and get a little dirty without raising alarm.

Snacks. Regardless of where the party is, hosts should be sure there is an array of fresh healthy snacks available. Small children are especially sensitive to drops in their blood sugar. Having bright and colorful fruit and vegetables on hand, along with some crackers and cheese or nuts (as long as no one is allergic), can help avoid a tantrum. Choosing foods that are not messy and putting them on a low table allows the small guests to help themselves.

Activities. Sometimes strict adherence to a schedule can derail a party. Consider, instead, a free flowing play-group style get together. Stations are an especially fun way to set up birthday parties and playdates in general. Arrange three areas: a table with paper and crayons or Playdough, another with blocks, and a third area with dress up clothes, for instance. Don’t worry if they seem ordinary. Playing with friends they don’t see all the time or in a new location will add plenty of novelty.

This arrangement allows all of the children, especially those with autism spectrum disorder or anxiety, to acceptably break away from the action and enjoy some much-needed independent play, if needed. If you must have structured games, keep them simple and familiar. Read or sing songs together, for instance, and save the more structured games for when they are a little older.

Gifts. As enjoyable as gifts are for children, they can also be a tremendous source of stress. The birthday girl or boy may be confused or distracted by the sudden onslaught of new things. This can really bring out the worst in a child. Getting a gift to bring also generates stress for invitees’ parents. And don’t we all already have enough stuff?

Consider suggesting that guests bring an item for a local food pantry or a donation for a cause your family supports. It’s an opportunity to share your values with your child and his friends. Alternatively, you could have a birthday swap. Have all guests bring something they already have on hand and exchange. That way everyone gets something new (to them).

While no party is guaranteed to be tantrum-free, following these simple guidelines allows you to work with your young guests’ inclinations and abilities and positions you and your toddler to host or attend an enjoyable birthday celebration.


Karissa Myers is a developmental educator with Early Intervention and Children Integrated Services for Southern Vermont. CIS/Early Intervention offers a playgroup from 10:30 a.m. – noon Mondays (except holidays) at the Bennington Free Library.