Birthday Invitation Etiquette Q&A

How many people do I invite? How can I avoid leaving anyone out? Get answers to your burning questions about invitation etiquette.

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Picking out a theme, entertainment, and party favors for your little one’s birthday? Now, that’s a piece of cake when compared to devising the perfect guest list. Our experts answer 11 common issues with birthday party invites to help you navigate the etiquette.

Plus: Try our “Best-Ever Birthdays” newsletter. Just enter your child’s birthday and we’ll send you a week-by-week planning guide starting four weeks before the big day.

kids at birthday party


How many people should I invite?

You might have heard this standard formula about putting together a birthday party invite list: the age of your child plus one (that is, a 4-year-old would have 5 kids at his party). These days, though, parties tend to become much bigger than intended, and there’s no magic number for how many kids to invite. Instead, you have to figure out whether to include family and friends, and if you want an intimate party or a blowout bash, says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., a Parents advisor and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. Just watch out for the snowball effect — for every person you invite, you might have to include several others.

birthday party


How do I whittle down a huge list of family and friends?

Many experts suggest the all-or-nothing approach. Cutting down by category instead of by person can prevent hurt feelings, suggests Elise McVeigh, an etiquette expert for and the founder of Mrs. McVeigh’s Manners in Dallas, Texas. Scale down by school friends, neighborhood friends, and even gender. Have an all-girls or an all-boys party, especially if your child doesn’t want to include any guests of the opposite sex. You shouldn’t invite all the boys in your class and then add a few girls, or vice versa. Consider having two separate parties — one for friends and one for family. You could have relatives over for cake on Sunday afternoon so they don’t all have to attend the main party for the friends. Ask yourself, “Does my 80-year-old great-grandmother really want to spend the day at Chuck E. Cheese’s?”

babies at birthday party


When do I start inviting my child’s friends?

A baby’s first and second birthdays are really more for the parents than for the child. Babies have no concept of friends, and they’re not going to remember the party anyway, so invite family members and a few of your own friends. When your child reaches age 3, or starts asking for playdates with other children, you’ll have an idea of whom they’d like to celebrate with, says McVeigh. You can invite two or three of your child’s friends or, if you’re in a Mommy and Me or a preschool class, consider inviting the whole class.

Classroom of kids


When is it okay to invite only my kid’s friends and not the entire class?

As children get older, the birthday party size tends to decrease and become based on relationships rather than on who is in the class, says Dr. Berman. Usually all the kids in class are invited until about first grade. After that, you can be more selective, but be careful: “If you’re inviting your daughter’s three best friends, that’s fine, but if you’re inviting half the class, word will travel fast to her other classmates,” Dr. Berman warns.

child alone

Fancy Photography/Veer

How do I avoid making a child feel left out?

You can avoid this sticky situation by inviting entire groups of kids — your child’s class, her soccer team, or the kids on your block. “You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or have a confrontation with another parent,” says McVeigh. If your child doesn’t want to include a particular kid, take the opportunity to teach etiquette and explain that it’s not good manners to exclude one or two children. If there are guests still left off the invite, explain that she and her friends shouldn’t discuss the party in front of others so whoever is not invited won’t overhear anything by accident.

child holding gift


What do I do when unwanted guests invite themselves to the party?

Either bite the bullet and send extra invitations or gently explain that you are keeping the party small, advises McVeigh. If you opt for the latter tactic, you might want to host a mini party. Suggest having a playdate within a week of your child’s birthday (either before or after) and have cupcakes or a special treat to celebrate. Worst-case scenario: If uninvited guests show up at the party, there’s not much you can do but let them stay and enjoy the festivities.

birthday party

Tara Donne

When should I have drop-off parties?

Drop-off parties tend to start around first grade (about age 6), but a lot depends on the venue. For instance, if you’re having a pool party for 20 kids, you should have parents stick around. If it’s a small, controlled party where there will be a lot of supervision, you can consider letting the moms and dads duck out. The key is to be flexible. If a child isn’t ready for his or her parents to leave, let them stick around. Birthday parties are supposed to be fun for little ones, not stressful. Writing “Drop-Off Optional” on the invitations helps prevent any confusion.

girl in wheelchair

After you send invites, ask the child’s parents how you can make his time at the party more fun and comfortable. “If it is a drop-off party, explain that an older sibling or parent of the child can shadow him during the party,” McVeigh says. Coach your child on how to make sure all her guests feel included.

Alien antennae headband

Francis Janisch

Do I have to include the siblings of children I’m inviting?

This is totally up to you. It’s a nice gesture to make so you don’t break up your guest’s family time, and you’re more likely to get a better showing if you do include siblings. But use common sense — if your 7-year-old is having a go-cart party, it might be inappropriate (not to mention dangerous) for his friends’ younger siblings to attend. Indicate your intentions on the invite: Address it either to the whole family or to just your child’s friend. Ideally, this will help get the message across.

Women laughing together

In most cases, the answer is a resounding no. “Most people without kids would be pleased not to suffer through another bouncy house party,” Dr. Berman says. Keep in mind, though, the relationship your friend has with your child. If the friend visits often and shows a genuine interest in your kid, she might appreciate an invitation. Just understand if she declines to attend.

Birthday Party Invite

Everyone’s biggest pet peeve when it comes to birthday parties is not getting a response. Here’s how to handle it: First, put a deadline date for the RSVP on your invite. “That makes your invitation sound more crucial,” McVeigh explains. If you still need to track down a few responses, she suggests emailing or calling the invitees and saying, “I’ve had some confusion with the RSVPs, so can you please tell me again if you’re able to make it or not?” If that doesn’t do the trick, make sure you have a few extra desserts and party favors on hand in case the people who didn’t respond appear.

Copyright &copy 2011 Meredith Corporation.

Dina Roth Port is the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions. She has written for publications such as Glamour, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Visit her website at

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