ABC's of Playdates

It's never too early for mom-and-tot meet-ups. Learn the secrets to making each one a success.

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Be a Playdate Pro!

Ah, the days of new motherhood. It's a time of highs (and lows) that can shift in a heartbeat. As a rookie, Robin Saks Frankel found that gabbing with other moms reined in her overwhelming feelings and frustrations: "All the parenting books in the world couldn't help me through the roller coaster of emotions," says Frankel, whose boys are 7 months and 2. "But chatting with other women did." That's why the New York City mom joined as many playgroups as possible through a center in her neighborhood that caters to families with kids. The happy result? "I met a gazillion people and widened my pool of friends."

Experts also give friend time the nod. "It's super important to connect with other moms," says Tammy Gold, a psychotherapist in Short Hills, New Jersey, who has a 17-month-old and a 4-year-old. "Motherhood can be isolating: You're alone all day, and you think you're the only one in the universe whose baby cries nonstop or won't sleep more than two hours at a stretch," Gold says. "It's key to find women with whom you can relate so you can talk about the daily details of caring for a child, such as which bottle to use or nursing technique to try."

Want to broaden your social circle? Follow these need-to-knows for mingling with other moms.

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Start 'em young

Right from day one, you and baby both benefit from having chums. But while your child is an infant, playdates are more about mommies bonding. That was the case for Jennifer Bright Reich, of Hellertown, Pennsylvania, whose sons are 2 and 4. Reich and a former colleague started rendezvousing when Reich's eldest was only a few weeks old. While their boys slept peacefully in their carriers, the moms got to swap tips and complain a little too. "We would say whatever was on our mind," Reich says. "It definitely deepened our friendship."

Even though they may snooze through most of an afternoon visit, pint-size guests profit from being exposed to new toys, an unfamiliar environment, and even another small person lying next to them. "Babies are born fascinated with other kids, and they learn by watching them," says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a parenting psychologist in Maui and the mom to four children ages 5 months, 4, 7, and 8 years. "This early socialization is good practice for babies. It means that once they're truly ready to interact with other children, they have a better grasp of what these exchanges are about."

And early playdates may be where future best buddies connect. "My 4-year-old and his friend went from having no interest in each other as babies, to playing side by side as toddlers, to racing around the house together as pals," Reich says.

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Pick fun mom pals

If your friends don't have kids yet, join a playgroup through Mothers of Preschoolers (mops.org), or take a mommy and me class at a community center. You can also look for playdates on meetup.com, craigslist.com, or americanbaby.com/meetmoms.

Seek out women who bring you up, not down. "A few moms in my playgroup weren't always truthful about how they were doing," says Carolyn Sutton, mother of a 13 month old in Dallas. Some boasted about how well their babies were sleeping; others tried to convince Sutton to let her daughter cry it out. Ultimately, she gravitated to those who shared a similar parenting philosophy. What if you're not clicking with your group? It's okay to split off with one or two other mothers, Gold says. "If the moms aren't supportive, you're in the wrong playgroup."

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Buff Strickland

Be a happy host

First, timing is everything. Map your get-together around nap schedules to ensure the babies won't be cranky. Set the scene by laying out toys in your living room or another babyproofed area. If you're preparing kid fare, ask ahead if anyone has food allergies (to nuts, for instance) and steer clear of sugary drinks and treats that may be contraband in other kids' homes.

Then, keep an eye on your child and manage your expectations. "If little ones [younger than 2] end up hanging out next to each other and having an enjoyable time, even if it's for five minutes, parents should be thrilled," Dr. Wittenberg says. In other words, if your child prefers to stay firmly planted on your lap, let her; if she doesn't want to engage with another child, there's no need to force it.

"Respect a child's own tempo," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. "She will interact when she's ready." Sutton, whose daughter is painfully shy, learned that lesson early on. "She can get scared easily, so I watch her carefully during playdates. I used to feel that I had to make excuses if my daughter cried or wanted to hide behind my legs, but I've accepted that this is who she is, and I put her needs first."

What if you sense meltdowns are imminent? Start to pick up the toys right away. This sends the signal that the playdate is over. Plus, if you take a few minutes to tidy up, your mom friends may be inclined to join you. You'll set a good example for your kids about cooperation, and you'll prevent your living room from looking like Toys "R" Us on Black Friday.

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Heather Weston

Keep the peace

Once children are old enough to grab for blocks or dolls, don't be surprised if a fracas breaks out. As much as you want kids to take turns nicely, they can't truly understand this concept until around age 2. Even then, "it's tough to master," Dr. Walfish says. But you can model sharing by saying something simple and direct to your child, such as, "No, it's Johnny's turn," Dr. Wittenberg says. "The concept will eventually start to sink in." Distraction works too. Stealthily give your little one another toy to play with. Reich and her friend watch for conflicts and intervene soon after one arises. "We both really try to nip toy taking in the bud," Reich says, "and I focus on my own kids, who are often the instigators."

When a tot pushes, hits, or bites, take action, pronto. "If your child is the aggressor, even if he's a baby, it's your responsibility to stop him," Gold says. "For instance, you can hold an 8-month-old's hands and sternly say, 'No hit.'" Once your child is old enough for a time-out (generally around 18 months to 2 years), you should issue one at the first sign of violence, Gold says. He still won't stop? Put him down for a nap if you're hosting or hightail it home if you're not.

If your kid is consistently at odds with another, have a powwow with the child's mom. You may find that rather than being a born terror, her usually well-mannered son is overtired because the playdate conflicts with naptime, Gold says. In any case, it's never too late for you to learn more about navigating new friendships, even as you teach your child to do the same.

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Heather Weston

Playdate Pitfalls: Avoid these excesses

Too much structure: Skip complex plans (like a trip to an aquarium then lunch at a restaurant). The agenda is bound to be thrown off when you?re dealing with tots. Keep it simple. If you're chill, the kids will feel that, Dr. Wittenberg says.

Too long a meet-up: One to two hours is sensible, Gold says. It's enough time for the kids to play and have a snack or lunch. Go any longer and you may creep into baby's naptime.

Too much effort: Playdates are not the time to toil over your famous homemade chili or fret about the state of your house. Forget perfection, have fun, and use these occasions as a forum for sharing all your ups and downs, Gold says.

Too many kids: Any more than a posse of four and a playdate becomes a chaotic party, Dr. Wittenberg says.

Too many playdates: "As a new mom, I felt pressure to say yes to every invite," Sutton says. "Now I've realized that if it doesn't work well for my daughter's schedule, it's better for us to stay home and have QT together."

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.

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