We remember when play dates were just called “hey, let’s invite Jennifer over.” But now play dates are an actual Thing, and the very first one with your baby can provoke a little anxiety. Though it doesn’t have to; it’s a fun excuse to get out of the house as a new parent and catch up with old friends or meet new ones. Or, if you’re the entertaining sort, you can host it yourself. Either way, we’ve got a few of our favorite play date tips for making your baby’s first social outing a successful one, though we can’t guarantee no tears. (Well, the baby’s anyway.)

This post is part of our monthly series with our Baby Shower Gift Guide sponsor babyGap, offering tips to help you celebrate motherhood firsts. And there are lots!

1. Keep it short: We suggest picking a small window of maybe two-hours absolute maximum for a play date. Even that may be pushing it with a very young child.

2. Timing is Everything: Keep in mind your your child’s nap schedule and work around it. As much as we support being a little flexible, we also know that throwing off a baby’s schedule can sometimes create havoc for a few days afterwards. Besides, you want your baby to be alert and energetic for the play date–otherwise it’s just a nap date.

3. Feed your baby first: From experience, we’ve learned that one of the most important play date tips is to fill up your baby’s belly before you go. Sure, pack food, snacks, bottles, and sippy cups like you always do, but in our experience, a young child with a full belly is much more pleasant.

4. Sick? Cancel! Don’t feel bad if your baby suddenly has green goo coming out of her nose and you have to reschedule. All the parents will appreciate it if you decide to keep your baby home with a cold–trust us on that one. There will be plenty more opportunities for play dates in the future. Besides, you’d feel pretty bad if suddenly the other kids came down with your kid’s cough too.

5. Dress your baby for comfort and play: Play dates are a great excuse to dress your baby up for super cute photo opps with first friends, but it’s not a runway show.  You want your kid comfy enough to crawl, roll, walk, slide, snack, and you know, actually play. Check out the stylish new Explorer line from babyGap, which features a slew of made-for-play styles for babies that are on trend without being flashy. It’s a nice step up from onesies and baby yoga pants, but definitely no crinolines or neckties (ha).

Smart baby playdate tips | Cool Mom Picks

Just make sure your baby’s outfit is one that let’s her move around easily. And we recommend layers, since some parents keep their homes way colder–or warmer–than others. You should probably even consider a backup in your diaper bag, should any accidents occur. Hey, they’re babies. They happen, as you know. But at least you’re with the people who will be the most forgiving about it–other parents or caregivers.

6. Pack Socks: If it’s warm out and your baby is going sock-less in sandals or slip-ons, keep in mind that lots of parents of new babies have no-shoe policies in their homes. Can never hurt to have a pair of socks or clean baby booties on hand in your diaper bag, just in case.

Cool clothes for baby's first playdate | Cool Mom Picks

7. Don’t expect play dates to be all about play: Just because it’s called a “play date” doesn’t actually mean your baby will play with the other kids. Babies will be interested in each other, but probably play alone, while toddlers will parallel play until they’re about two or three.  Your child may even want to sit with you the whole time. Or nap. Or fight with the other kids. Or have a total meltdown. We’ve been through all of them. It gets better.

8. Check out the childproofing: If you plug all your light sockets, bubble wrap the coffee table edges, and lock every cabinet and drawer because your curious toddler needs it, don’t assume that the other parent has done the same. Every parent approaches childproofing differently, so keep an extra eye on your child in someone else’s home. We’ve seen way too many books (or far more breakable items) pulled off shelves by curious toddlers who were just being toddlers.

9. Try not to compare your children: It’s so easy to stress about milestones, especially with a first child. The other kids may be walking sooner, may have more words, may eat more foods, but you know? In a few years you won’t even remember who did what. Just relax and accept that young children develop at different rates. That kid who took his first steps at 9 months may not be the one who’s reading in kindergarten.

10. Don’t be “That Parent”: On the flip side, even if you’re feeling super proud of your child’s accomplishments (as well you should be!), try to refrain from detailing every single early milestone. A play date isn’t a competitive sport, and if you’re at ease, the other parents will be too.

11. Know when it’s time to go: When it comes to play dates, you certainly do not want to overstay your welcome. Though we find it has less to do with annoying the hosts, and more about making it a positive experience for you and your baby. It’s much harder to leave when your baby is tired and cranky, so do your best to bow out at the first signs, even if you’ve planned to stay longer. Better to leave any social situation on a good note.

And hey, if things turn sour quickly and you end up leaving 15 minutes into the play date? It’s not the end of the world. Besides, it’s just one more notch on your big parenting belt and another funny story for Facebook.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at babyGap for sponsoring this series and helping us celebrate the many joys of early parenthood. To see more of their new collection of baby clothes and gifts, check out our favorite babyGap picks in our Baby Shower Gift Guide

[Top photo via flickr user christina kessler by a creative commons license.]

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