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SHARING THE JOY AT A BABY SHOWER

Could any party be more wonderful than a baby shower? Though the event it signals is a momentous one, the tone of a shower is lighthearted and joyous. There's no better way to celebrate than with delectable food, exquisite decorations -- and lots of gifts for the parents-to-be.

Baby showers used to be predictable affairs, but today, each one is as individual as each new baby will be. If you're hosting a shower, just do your best to throw a party that fits the mother's (or the couple's) style.

Here are some suggestions for planning a shower, and ideas for gifts any parent will love.

The shower

Remember, a baby shower is just a party with a very special theme. As with any gathering, creativity, some thoughtful touches and organization will make it a special experience for both host and guests.

It's important to consult with the mother-to-be on a couple of crucial points.

Showers are often held before the baby's birth, but some parents prefer to wait until the child has arrived safely. There are advantages to both: If the shower takes place earlier, the parents will be prepared with a well-stocked nursery in advance; if you wait, the baby can attend the shower, which is delightful for the guests.

Second, ask if the mother would like to invite men to the shower, too. Today, many mothers prefer this. If you want the shower to feel more like a regular party, making it co-ed is a good way to achieve this.

Tea-party fare is traditional, and a buffet of tea sandwiches, sweets and pretty cups and saucers is beautiful and festive. But it's not your only option. A shower can be held at any time of day, and you can serve your specialties. The food can be as homey or as elegant as you like.

It's nice to serve whatever the guest of honor considers a real treat, such as caviar or lobster. She deserves a little luxury -- and she'll be so busy once the baby is born that she may not have the time to indulge her more gourmet cravings.

The event is certainly worthy of some fine champagne, but because the mother-to-be won't be able to enjoy it, you can stick to non-alcoholic drinks. Mix pureed seasonal fruit with seltzer, make fresh lemonade and herbal iced teas, or stir up spicy virgin Marys.

For decorations, look beyond pale pink and baby blue. I like bright reds, yellows and blues for showers and gifts, and babies like primary colors, too.

To set a whimsical table, use pacifiers with looped handles as napkin rings, or pin place cards to napkins with diaper pins. Fill baby bottles with candies as favors.

Flowers, a symbol of life, are essential. Instead of big, fussy arrangements, fill children's cups, baby bottles or miniature glass milk bottles with colorful blooms -- whatever's in season. Use one to mark each setting, dot them across the room or cluster them together on the table for a centerpiece.

The gifts

The point of a shower, of course, is to equip parents with everything they'll need to care for their new arrival. Though babies can't have too many blankets or onesies, they won't need more than a single car seat or high chair. To prevent duplicates, the host may want to act as information-gatherer: Find out from the parents what they've already bought or received, then offer gift suggestions to guests. Keep in touch with them so you have an idea of what has been purchased.

Practical gifts are always welcome. Fill a diaper bag or baby bathtub with an assortment of essentials, such as baby soap and shampoo, diaper rash ointment, nail scissors, washcloths and hooded towels, pacifiers, bottles and a bottle brush, thermometer and a toy or two. Several people can get together to buy a big item, such as a stroller or crib.

It's never too early to start a library, and books are a perfect present. The host may want to ask each guest to bring along her favorite book in addition to her other gift.

Keepsake gifts are special, and particularly good if the parents have already stocked up on the basics. Picture frames and a silver cup, spoon or rattle become family heirlooms. Hand-engraved calling cards are one of my favorite gifts for a newborn -- or any child. He or she can slip them into thank-you notes for years to come.

Don't forget that many parents know if they're having a boy or girl, which makes gift-giving easier. They may even have chosen the name, so you can have a blanket or towels monogrammed and ready for the little one as soon as he or she arrives.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: mstewart@marthastewart.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.