9 Great Themes for a First Birthday Party

a baby smashing his birthday cake

Your one-year-old doesn’t know a birthday from an elephant, so this is your chance to celebrate your anniversary as parents as well as your child’s milestone in a way you can all enjoy – and that you’ll all remember.. From a First Zoo Trip to a Time Capsule Gathering and a Birthday Brunch, here are a handful of birthday celebrations that do not involve clowns or goodie bags.

1. A Birthday Brunch

pancakes in a fry pan

Who It’s For: Baby and family

The Big Plus: Minimal preparation, no cleanup and (most likely) a relaxed, happy baby.

The Deal: An intimate celebration with just the grandparents or your closest friends at a local brunch spot – preferably somewhere a little bit special (and with a high chair, of course). Morning is most babies’ sweetest time of day, and while brunch provides opportunities for the adults to chat, giving the birthday child some extra attention will make him feel like a little king. This might even be your baby’s chance to clock another first: first taste of pancake or waffle. Just bring a new small toy or two — if you can find one with a suction cup that you can stick to the dining table, all the better — along with a snack to keep Baby happy before the food arrives.

Extra Credit: Bring your own cake and candle. Be sure to let the restaurant know ahead of time and ask about plating fees – the charges added to your bill for cutting and serving your cake.

2. A Birthday BabyQ

a family having a bbq

Who It’s For: Baby, family, friends — the whole caboodle

The Big Plus: Babies and kids get lots of space to crawl, run and play; you get to celebrate inexpensively with a horde.

The Deal: A big family barbecue to celebrate this one-year milestone in a big way. Don’t worry if your yard’s not big enough for all the people you want to invite, or if you’re yardless; many parks have barbecue grills for public use — just check to see if yours requires reservations. Hot dogs and burgers are an easy and inexpensive party food that most kids love (note, though, that one-year-olds can choke on hot dogs, along with chips and popcorn); for the birthday child and his friends, all you need is a “baby buffet” of finger foods — cheese puffs are always a hit, or you can ask a local pizza parlor to deliver (most will deliver to a park), remove the cheese and cut the slices into bite-size pieces. Instead of a large cake, consider baking mini-cupcakes; they’re just big enough for one candle!

Extra Credit: Decorate the yard or the park’s barbecue grove with streamers and Mylar balloons, and give each child a balloon as they leave (unlike traditional balloons, Mylar ones don’t pose a choking hazard for babies).

3. A Grown-Up Cocktail Party

some pink cocktails

Who It’s For: Baby, family and friends

The Big Plus: You get to re-experience life before Baby (yes, that was just 13 months ago); Baby gets lots of grown-up attention.

The Deal: A great way to celebrate not only your little one’s first birthday, but also your first year as parents. Give yourselves a treat by gathering with friends and family for a real, grown-up party — it might be a while before you get another chance. Prepare a variety of hors d’oeuvres and some specialty drinks. Then dress up baby in a party dress or little suit. Everybody will love seeing her looking so smart, and she’s sure to enjoy all the attention. Don’t worry about her bedtime; she will get cranky fairly soon, so just be ready to keep partying while she falls asleep on your shoulder and then put her down in her crib; or recruit Grandma to manage the bedtime ritual.

Extra Credit: Make sure to have your camera ready and loaded, and take a picture early on during the party; who knows when your little one will next be all dressed up and clean.

4. A Zoo Party

a dad and his son looking at a goat

Who It’s For: Baby and family; Baby’s friends and their moms optional

The Big Plus: Having a planned and timed outside activity cuts down on the stress of entertaining.

The Deal: An exciting day to remember, whether the “party” consists of just immediate family or you and some of Baby’s playgroup friends. Your local zoo might offer special party services, but these are generally geared to older kids. For a one-year-old, plan your own short tour by picking a couple of exhibits. Your best bet: the petting zoo, where babies can get up close to chicken, lambs and other farm animals, as well as rabbits and guinea pigs. Most zoos have cafes or outdoor seating areas, so bring your own cake and plan to gather for the candle lighting before checking out the animals in case any of the little ones grow sleepy and need to leave early. And especially if your baby has minimal experience of animals (not even cats and dogs), you might want to prepare her ahead of time by looking at some books about the zoo and animals.

Extra Credit: Give each baby a zip-lock bag of animal crackers to munch on during the stroller tour. And be sure to take pictures of the animals as you go so that your baby can look at them in the days and weeks to come and remember this experience.

5. A Time Capsule Gathering

a toy train

Who It’s For: Baby and family or close friends

The Big Plus: In ten or twenty years’ time, your child will have a unique memento of this day.

The Deal: The goal of this gathering is to create a collection of things that you can give your kid when he turns, say, 21 — a gift for the future from the people closest to him, that will show him both how loved he was as a baby, and what the world was like back then. At the same time, you’re enjoying a warm, low-stress celebration. So put on a large pot of soup or order in, and invite family members and friends to bring something that represents the “now” for them — it could be anything from a newspaper clipping to a recent family photo, or a flash drive loaded with a couple of songs or music videos. At your gathering, put all these things, plus your baby’s birthday cards, hospital bracelet, a recent photo and other baby items in a box — it could be a decorated shoe box or a special keepsake box — let Baby add a small toy or drawing of his own, and seal it closed with ribbon.

Extra Credit: Make this an annual tradition by adding new stuff to the “capsule” every year.

6. A Baby Carnival

candy floss

Who It’s For: Plenty of family and lots of friends

The Big Plus: Games, prizes and tons of fun.

The Deal: A thoroughly informal, anything-goes event — and one that’s so action-packed, your little one will be completely amazed to just watch it happen. Creating your own carnival, whether indoors or out, may seem like a lot of work, but the payoff is a ton of fun especially if Baby has big siblings or older cousins. Here’s how to make it relatively simple: Set up a few tables with games, contests and activities. Some fun ideas: Fill up a jar with Hershey’s Kisses and have people guess how many are in the jar; make a ring-toss game out of soda bottles (learn how here); Cake Walk (make numbered chalk squares on the ground; when the music stops each player stands in a number; you pull a number from a hat and the person on the matching number wins a prize); and ask an older kid or one of your friends to help out with face painting or finger-nail decorating. Inexpensive and cute little trinkets or travel-size games from your local drugstore can serve as prizes. Ask your guests to bring fun carnival foods: corn dogs and cotton candy are obvious choices; stay away from popcorn, which is a choking hazard for babies.

Extra Credit: Hand out bags of cotton candy.

7. A Birthday Garden

some plants budding in a garden

Who It’s For: Baby, family and close friends

The Big Plus: Beautification of your baby’s future environment and the start of a living photo tradition.

The Deal: You and the most important people in Baby’s life plant perennial flowers and shrubs, or even better, a flowering tree, which will grow as the baby grows. If possible, pick a species of plant that blooms around the time of baby’s birthday. Ask the guests to come prepared to dig a little garden in your yard or a local community garden before celebrating with cake. Then every year on your child’s birthday, take a picture of him in “his” garden. If you want to go ahead and make this a “green” themed celebration, use recycled paper invitations, reusable or recycled plates and flatware, and ask your guests to bring seeds or plants as gifts for Baby.

Extra Credit: Make a little plaque for your garden or tree with your baby’s name and age, and the date.

8. A Mommy Group Gathering

two moms posing with their babies

Who It’s For: Babies and mommies

The Big Plus: Mom gets to hang with her friends and Baby gets to play with his.

The Deal: Use one of your baby group, play group, or baby exercise group’s regular meeting times to celebrate Baby’s first year. If other babies in the group have a birthday the same week, share the party! You can plan special activities — a sing-along, cake time, and even a group trip to a nearby kid-friendly cafe or ice-cream shop — and talk about how you feel about making it to this major milestone.

Extra Credit: If the other ladies don’t mind, ask Dad if he can stop by. His presence, even for 10 or 15 minutes, will make the occasion feel all the more special — and he won’t feel left out.

9. A Baby Dance Party

a baby dancing

Who It’s For: Baby, Mom and Dad, plus sibs.

The Big Plus: You get to relive your pre-baby days and get your groove on with your little one.

The Deal: An afternoon dance party for club kids of all ages (as long as their children or parents), complete with DJs spinning real dance music, snacks and beverages, diaper-changing stations, and areas where little ones can chill out or play. If your idea of a birthday treat used to be a night of clubbing, then you’ll be glad to know that family dance parties happen regularly around the country. The best known are thrown by Baby Loves Disco, but more local options exist too, such as Knoxville’s Boogie Down Baby. All you have to do is buy tickets and show up.

Extra Credit: Get the whole family dressed up disco-style and bring your own glow sticks.

I’m a married mom of two living in Seattle, WA. I have a seven-year-old little boy, a first grader! He’s a fairly reserved kid and all about Legos and building sets. I also have a little girl who turned three at the end of February. She’s a tiny thing but a big ham; we call her our clown. They’re a lot of work but also a ton of fun. I love to eat, cook, and run (in that order). But at the end of the day, give me a spot on the couch and a little bit of TV or a good book, I’m done!