Just when you think you've finally figured out the trick to birthday parties … your child jumps to the next stage of maturity and you have to start from scratch all over again. My daughter loved the visit by Winnie-the-Pooh at her third birthday party, but begged us not to hire a character for her fourth too embarrassing!). At her fourth party, the children enjoyed the organized games, but then refused to play them at her fifth (too boring). After a while you feel like throwing in the towel, but you can't because the party must go on! The good news is children are fairly consistent along age lines. At each stage of maturity, certain types of birthday parties work better than others:

FIRST BIRTHDAY A child's first birthday party is for you as much as it is for them. After all, you've made it through 12 months of sleepless nights, so you deserve a chance to celebrate this important milestone. Unless your child is close to a particular child, there's really not even a need to invite other children. Since your child will be the star of the show, choose a time for the party when he'll be well rested. Don't be surprised if he doesn't show much interest in presents at this age. The wrapping paper and ribbons are usually much more interesting. Take plenty of pictures and then put him down for a nap at his regular time. Then, you can enjoy a few moments alone with your family and friends.

SECOND BIRTHDAY The best advice for this age group is to keep it short and simple. An hour is long enough. It's hard to have an organized party with toddlers, so limit the guest list to three children and hopefully they'll all play together. Toddlers love music, so pop a children's party tape into the stereo and do the hokey-pokey. Goody bags are a must at this age - sometimes it's the only way to entice the children to leave the party!

THIRD BIRTHDAY If you ever plan to splurge and hire a special character such as Winnie the Pooh or Barney - this is it. The children are old enough to identify the character and love the personal visit. Encourage the children's parents to stick around for the party (even if this means supplying party food for the adults) - because you'll need the extra help.

FOURTH BIRTHDAY The guest list can get a little tricky at this age because some preschools insist on invitations being given to every child in the class. Take it from someone who has been there - eight preschoolers at a birthday party can be too much to handle alone. When parents ask if you need help, say yes. Organized games are a must at this age; otherwise the children will run wild. Even though four-year-olds love to play games, they don't like to lose. Choose non-competitive games, or change the rules of old games so no one is "out". When you're packing the goody bags, go to extra trouble to make sure every bag is exactly the same. Otherwise, you'll be hearing a lot of, "Susie got a red ball. I want a red ball," and you'll be dashing around trying to placate everyone. To alleviate this problem, try not to hand out the goody bags until they're on their way out the door.


FIFTH BIRTHDAY This is a great age for a birthday party. Children are finally old enough to understand the concept and take great pride in giving their present to the birthday child. Be aware, they're also watching the birthday child carefully to see if they like their present, so now's the time to talk to your child about manners if you haven't already. Play act saying "thank you" convincingly such as, "This is great. Thank you." My daughter understood what she was supposed to say, but it took a great deal of practice before she could say nice things convincingly about a present she didn't like. Five-year-olds enjoy hands-on activities such as craft parties or scavenger hunts. They also like to run from one activity to another, so have plenty of things on hand to keep them busy. It seems like I always run out of activities, so plan several extra ones just in case.

AGES 6-8 Children at this age feel hurt when classmates are invited to a party and they're not, so it's critical to devise a plan to prevent this. Inviting my daughter's entire kindergarten class of 24 was out of the question, so we invited only girls. Most children seem to understand about parties just for boys or girls, so they don't feel slighted. Children in this age group like birthday parties set in unusual surroundings. After five years of playing party games, they're ready for something new. Check around your neighborhood for interesting places or businesses that offer birthday parties. Some places you might not have thought of include: craft stores, YMCAs, zoos, art studios and restaurants.

AGES 9-12 Adolescents embarrass easily, so include your child in every detail of the party planning. This is not the time to "surprise" your child with ponies or a magician. Children of this age usually prefer doing something special with two or three friends - such as having a sleepover or camping out in the backyard (or living room). Try not to hover over the kids. Stock up the refrigerator; offer your help if they need anything, then fade into the background. (Hang out in the shadows - but don't leave them without adult supervision. Despite what they think they're not adults yet).