20 First Birthday Ideas to Celebrate Your Toddler (and Making It Through the Year)

From what to serve to what to do

Baby with a One Birthday Cake CAT2
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The one-year mark is a big milestone—especially for the parents who survived those grueling first 12 months—and most definitely a cause for celebration. But you don’t need to pull out all the stops and spend big bucks to make the occasion special (the guest of honor won’t even remember it, after all). With that in mind, here are 20 easy-to-pull-off and totally unique (but still very adorable) first birthday ideas for a celebration that honors the 1-year-old baby in your life with age-appropriate activities, party-friendly food, and some sage advice for good measure

35 Birthday Cake Recipes That Are Actually Easy to Pull Off

Teddy Bear Cupcakes Birthday CAT
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1. Make It Colorful

Bright and vibrant party decorations are a surefire way to make a shindig feel extra festive. In fact, there’s no such thing as too much color at a first birthday party. Case in point: This rainbow-colored bash from One Little Project, which basically delivers a dose of instant cheer.

smash cake first birthday ideas
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2. Have a Smash Cake

Smash cakes (i.e., a cake that a kid can smash with their tiny fists and smear all over their face) have been a popular feature of first birthdays for a while now, primarily because of the amazing photo-op they provide. Plus, the spectacle is plenty entertaining in real life, too—just be sure to have a back-up cake to serve the guest, since the smash cake (obviously) won’t be too appealing once the birthday baby is done with it. (Pro tip: Try a smash cupcake instead of a full-size cake to minimize the expense and waste involved.)

Waffle Rainbow Cake CAT

3. Or a No-smash Cake

It’s also totally acceptable to skip the smash cake entirely. Indeed, a smash cake comes with its fair share of cons—namely that you will spend a lot of time cleaning up your child afterwards (bathtime break, anyone?) and that oh-so adorable birthday outfit might end up a one-wear-wonder. Plus, having to bake or purchase two cakes for a first birthday party is an additional expense.

If you’re not feeling the whole smash cake thing, you can go the opposite direction and spring for a Pinterest-worthy cake instead—we’ve got plenty to choose from in our roundup of birthday cakes here. Psst: If you opt for a fondant cake, the icing acts like a protective shield, allowing you to snap some precious photos of your kid with their cake, without the risk of, well, unplanned smashing.

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4. Set Up a Finger Food Buffet

Sure, you could do a barbeque (weather permitting) and serve up hot dogs and hamburgers, but that’s a lot more work for the host (ahem, you). Your kid’s first birthday party will feel a lot less hectic if you keep things casual and low-maintenance with a buffet table instead. Before the partygoers show up, put out a spread of finger foods, featuring grown-up fare (Brie, charcuterie, olives) along with baby-friendly favorites (think: Cheerios, cubes of mild cheese, fruit cups). I did bagels and fruit salad at my daughter’s first birthday party, but the bottom line is that you’re better off with any kind of snack set-up that allows guests to serve themselves while you enjoy the party.

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A Beautiful Mess

5. Go with a Theme

A themed party takes a little extra effort to execute, but the end result will definitely be great fodder for a first year scrapbook. If you go this route, choose a theme that reflects your tot’s current interests (read: chances are your 1-year-old hasn’t fallen in love with Frozen yet), and know that you don’t need to go nuts with it—just a few decorative touches or snacks that fit the motif will do the trick. This sweet puppy-themed party from A Beautiful Mess checks all the boxes (i.e., cute, but not overkill).

first birthday ideas no theme
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6. ...or Don’t

At the end of the day, the thought you put into a themed party is likely to be lost on your 1-year-old, and we guarantee the bash will be every bit as enjoyable for the guests if you forgo a theme entirely. In other words, there’s no shame in your game if you throw a regular ol’ birthday party, complete with party hats, balloons and cake. Easy peasy.

first birthday ideas photo display
A Beautiful Mess

7. Make A First Year Photo Display

Some sentimental decor, in the form of a first year photo collage, is a natural fit for a first birthday party. It’s also a creative opportunity for parents, as there are numerous ways to feature a tot’s baby photos on the big day. Of course, you can also just keep it simple and show off the birthday baby’s month-to-month development with an understated collage like this one from A Beautiful Mess.

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8. Designate A Photographer

The host of a first birthday party has to wear many hats, but a photographer shouldn’t be one of them. That said, unless you designate a guest to take on this job in advance, there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself more focused on documenting the event than actually enjoying it; equally unfortunate is finding you don’t have any snapshots of the special day. Avoid both these scenarios by appointing a family member or trusted friend to be photographer for a day. (Hint: The best candidate for the job is someone who doesn’t also have their own very young child to wrangle.) I have framed photos of my daughter smashing her birthday cake, but didn’t have to pull my phone out once during the event, and I’m grateful for it.

first birthday ideas photo shoot
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9. Have a Pre-party Photo Shoot

In addition to a designated guest-photographer, we strongly suggest you take advantage of the pre-party calm to snap a few pics of your own. Once the bash is underway, there’s a strong possibility that your baby (and maybe you) will become overstimulated—and an overstimulated baby is far less likely to flash a charming four-toothed smile for the camera.

first birthday party ideas baby clapping
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10. Keep It Short

As previously mentioned, young toddlers are easily overstimulated—and with all the decorations and people, a first year party is sure to have that effect on the birthday babe. For this reason, you and your child (along with any other guests in the same boat) will enjoy the event a lot more if you keep it brief. A first birthday party really doesn’t need to (read: shouldn’t) be more than two hours from start to finish.

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11. Don’t Mess With Naptime

If you’re the parent of a soon-to-be 1-year-old, we probably don’t need to tell you that naptime is sacred. Assuming you’ve got a fairly consistent nap schedule—I definitely did, and I lived and died by it—try to plan the party so that it doesn’t interfere with one of your child’s snoozes. You might be tempted to throw the schedule out the door for the special occasion, but when the birthday baby is well-rested, everything will run more smoothly. Plus, if you plan it such that your child is napping right before the party begins, you’ll benefit from some baby-free time to set up before the guests arrive.

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12. Get Help With Clean-up

Obviously, bigger bashes generate bigger messes, but a party of any size will require some clean-up—and if there’s one thing you’re short on as a parent of a 1-year-old, it’s time. For this reason, we recommend you tag a close friend or family member to stick around and help you tidy up once the party’s over (you know, so you can put your overwrought birthday baby down for nap #2 and toast your hosting success). (I failed to do this and after putting my overwrought birthday baby down for a nap, I felt more like crying than celebrating my hosting success when I saw the mess in my home afterwards, just saying.)

Kids Celebrating Their Birthdays CAT
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13. Or Have Someone Else Host

If you have a friend or family member who’s willing to host, take the party to their place instead. This way you can ask your partner to stay behind and help with the mess while your birthday baby takes a much needed car or stroller nap. The only thing you’ll have to deal with is the crib transfer when you get home.

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14. Prepare a Solid Playlist

The first birthday party is unique in that it’s as much for the parents in attendance as it is for the babies. As such, we recommend spending some time curating a seriously cool playlist that the adults will appreciate in order to set the party atmosphere and get everyone in the mood to relax and socialize. (Not to toot my own horn, but the playlist I made was so good that we’re still having family dance parties to it eight years later.)

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The Craft Patch

15. Make a Balloon Arch

You want the bash to be as festive as possible and good decor is key; at the same time, you don’t want a gaggle of one-year-olds twisting themselves up in balloon strings and/or chewing on them. The solution? A statement-making and oh-so-celebratory balloon arch. The one pictured above, courtesy of The Craft Patch, is graduation-themed, but the instructions are easy to follow and can be customized to feature whatever colors or theme you choose. You can find the full tutorial here.

A Baby Fingerpainting CAT
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16. Bust Out the Finger Paints

When it comes to one year olds, age-appropriate party activities are few and far between. Simple crafts are always a winner, though, and finger painting is a particularly fitting activity for the occasion. Ideally, the finger painting station will be set up outside, but either way, make sure you provide a little smock for all the pint-sized guests and have a cleaning station ready so parents don’t have to deal with too much mess or, God forbid, become the canvases themselves.

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17. Make It a Sensory Sensation

Set up multiple stations that serve up sensory delight to the tots in attendance. Sensory bins, kinetic sand, playdough, rice discovery bins that conceal pretend food items, sensory bottles and musical instruments can all be on the menu. Supervision will be required of course, but the array of activities will surely keep all the babies entertained and the sensory experiences are soothing enough to prevent overstimulation

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18. Consider Water Play

Water play is another sensory activity like the ones listed above, but one that’s best reserved for outdoor events and summer birthdays. We suggest investing in a water table—or two, depending on the size of the group—and filling it up so that the baby guests can get an introduction to cause and effect whilst splashing to their heart's content.

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19. Have a Playground Party

Weather permitting, a playground birthday party is a great way to keep the mess out of your home while providing built-in entertainment for the little ones. Get to the location early so you can snag a picnic table for cake and snacks and the rest will take care of itself—namely because the guests will just be crawling or toddling around and exploring the baby-friendly play structures.

Finger Painting CAT
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20. Send Handprint Invitations (or Thank You Cards)

Skip the e-vite and send invitations the old fashioned way, or reserve this sweet and sentimental craft for thank you cards instead—either way, the hands-on activity will delight the birthday baby and the personal touch (so to speak) of the finished product makes for a decidedly cute form of communication.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...