When my son, Michael, was a toddler, my husband and I took him to a family New Year's celebration. We'd had a wonderful time at the all-day feast the year before, when Michael was just a baby and still immobile. But taking an 18-month-old proved to be a disaster. We had planned to feed him first and put him down for a nap when the adults sat down for lunch. But Michael refused to sleep in the strange house. On the loose in the dining room, he started pulling on the tablecloth, almost tipping over the crystal. I spent much of the day confined to a bedroom trying to entertain him, which wasn't much of a celebration for either of us.
Holiday get-togethers can be the biggest social events of the year for your toddler. But make sure your hosts are ready for tot-size guests. Is the house babyproofed? Ask relatives to place potential hazards -- such as candles, mistletoe, or hard candy -- out of your toddler's reach. And unless the Christmas tree is blocked by a baby gate, it'll be your job to keep little hands off branches and shiny ornaments. Does the holiday menu include food that your little one will eat? A side dish of plain pasta is easy enough to prepare, but as a courtesy, make your request in advance.
Timing is another consideration. Does the Christmas dinner or New Year's Eve party start after your toddler's usual bedtime? A late-afternoon nap, say from 4 to 6 p.m., may give him more stamina for an evening event, suggests Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, in Washington, D.C. "But a toddler who is particularly dependent on routines, especially regarding sleep, can get really weepy and whiny if you change his schedule."
In the interest of everyone's merriment, get your child to nap for at least part of the visit, especially if it's an all-day affair. Bring along a few home comforts, such as her blanket, a favorite bedtime book, pajamas, and a night-light. A portable play yard might also help her feel more at ease about sleeping in a strange home, Powers suggests.
When you arrive at the party, find a safe, strategic place -- such as on the floor next to the couch, where your toddler can be somewhat contained -- to set up camp. Bring along a bag full of new toys or ones your child hasn't seen in a while. Shape sorters and nesting cups should hold her attention, as should simple puzzles and books with flaps that lift.
Aunt Clara and Uncle Ted may be part of your family, but if you see them only a couple of times a year, they're strangers to your toddler. "A family member may mean well when she swoops in to hug your child," says Lane Tanner, M.D., director of the division of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. "But your toddler might see it as an attack. Young children have to be wooed." Kids can hold on to some aspects of stranger anxiety up to age 3 -- and sometimes longer.
To ease your child's fears, hold him in your arms as you enter a party room or house. You'll want to show off your darling to friends and relatives, of course, but be patient. Give him a chance to survey his surroundings first. Your newly walking child may be especially frightened at parties where all the adults are standing. "Toddlers may go off to explore and then lose sight of their parents in a sea of legs," Dr. Tanner says. So stay close to your child and at his eye level.
Some children this age may tolerate strangers -- but not strange-looking creatures like the big guy in a bright red suit yelling, "Ho, ho, ho!" "At my husband's office party, the Santa Claus was handing out presents to the children, but Beth, our 22-month-old, burst into tears whenever he came close," recalls Krystyna Kuszak, of Oak Park, Illinois. "It got so bad that we had to leave."
Toddlers have a keen awareness of what's normal, and things that look out of the ordinary can be disturbing to them. Therefore, never rush to plop your toddler on old St. Nick's lap. Point him out as you wait in line for your photo at the mall, and watch other kids have fun meeting Santa. Then, holding your toddler, move in slowly. If she's especially fearful, keep her in your arms for the picture.
Whether you plan on admiring pretty department-store windows or shopping for holiday gifts, factor in your toddler's short attention span. "It can be even shorter than usual if your child is already fatigued when you leave home," says Jane M. Foy, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. December's flurry of activity is bound to wear him out even further. "He may only be able to last two thirds as long as usual between naps," says Dr. Foy, who recommends mixing short spurts of shopping with one-on-one story- or snacktime, rather than one marathon trip.
And if seeing special holiday lights requires an hour-long ride into the city, your toddler probably won't mind skipping the tradition this year. "You run the risk of overstimulating your child on a long outing -- especially if you're going to a setting with lots of noise and bright lights," Dr. Foy says. "This can set the stage for a tantrum."
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 2001 issue of Parents magazine.