How To Set Boundaries With Family at Holiday Gatherings

By Published On: November 14th, 2023

Tips for drawing parental barriers to keep your little one safe and your sanity in check.

I’ll be the first to voice that while I look forward to celebrating the holidays with loved ones, I’m not a fan of bringing a baby around larger groups—even when the group consists solely of my family members.

When my now 7-year-old daughter celebrated her first Thanksgiving, she was only 4 months old. Until then, we had been in a safe little bubble that kept us mostly shielded from outside germs and illness and interaction with others. But Thanksgiving in my family comes with hugging and kissing, face-to-face conversation, doting grandparents, and possibly libations, which tends to blur the line of what’s considered “personal space.” These factors can lead to vulnerable conditions for little ones’ well-being because the chance of transferring germs via close contact is increased.

Newborns are especially susceptible to illness, while their immune systems are still fragile after birth. Even older babies are at higher risk for certain illnesses, specifically respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which runs rampant during the holiday season. Infants are also sensitive to fragrance, meaning your sister’s perfume or your in-laws’ heavily scented laundry detergent can irritate your baby’s respiratory system or skin. Additionally, third-hand smoke—residual contamination from tobacco smoke that lingers in rooms and on clothing for long periods—is also a concern.

All of the aforementioned factors and concerns were present leading up to my daughter’s first Thanksgiving holiday, which honestly affected my mental health. All of this had me anxiously questioning how I would be able to protect her while still engaging with guests and enjoying family relationships. Six Thanksgivings and three additional kids later, I have learned a few helpful methods of setting healthy boundaries when spending time with family that I feel are worth sharing with any other parent feeling apprehensive about the holiday season.

Wear Your Baby

One of the most effective ways I’ve learned how to set healthy boundaries is to avoid tricky situations from the start. For instance,  I’ve prevented older children and adults from touching my child or asking if they can “pass baby around” is by simply wearing them. I did this with each of my babies during multiple family gatherings, and after a few minutes, people almost forgot I had a baby strapped to my chest. (They sleep so snuggly in there!) My preference was to have the wrap prepared and ready to go before leaving the house. Once we reached our family event, I put my baby in the wrap before ringing the doorbell and avoided giving anyone the chance to take my baby out of my hands (or off my body).

Prepare to Say “No”

When someone puts you on the spot and asks to hold your little one (and you don’t want them to), have a ready response for declining their request. Something clear and considerate should do the trick, such as, “I know you’re excited to see the baby! I’m going to hold onto her for the time being, but thanks so much for having us!” or something short and sweet like, “Due to cold-and-flu season, I’m not allowing anyone to hold her until she’s a bit older. I appreciate your understanding!”

For me, being somewhat of a people-pleaser, it was hard to let well-intentioned family and friends down, even though I knew it was more important to keep my baby safe. My husband was a valuable mouthpiece for my thoughts and emotional boundaries in larger gatherings. We would divide and conquer by letting everyone know that our baby was to be seen but not touched, and eventually, he knew who the eager elders were and would make a point to remind them of our wishes early on. No matter who you choose to be your wingman, whether it’s your partner, a sibling, or your own mother, having someone to take some of the burden off of you to continuously say no and to follow through on your family boundaries will help you protect your child and your emotional needs.

Give a Heads-Up

Another way to communicate your wishes is by giving your family notice before your event. Sending an email or group text before a gathering can help manage your family’s expectations. These messages can cover a range of topics—not just health and wellness, so others know what to expect. For example, when we host a holiday, I send out a preliminary text reminding everyone that we do not allow outdoor shoes in our home. While a bit awkward to relay, I don’t want someone being caught off-guard once they’ve arrived at my home (without socks, slippers, or whatever else makes them comfortable).

Aside from steering clear of germs, you may have to communicate your personal boundaries about people taking pictures of your kids and posting them on social media or sneaking your toddler one-too-many cookies when you’re not looking. This has been a point of contention for me because my oldest has adverse reactions to food dye, so we have to monitor what she eats.

Of course, sending a group message isn’t a surefire way to get your points across, but it will at least prime your family members for what’s to come. And when used in combination with gentle reminders (or polite push-back, if needed), you’ll hopefully feel confident and respected in your decisions.

Embrace Awkward Interactions

Even the most conscious crowd can have an outlier who just can’t keep their hands to themselves. Part of drawing a boundary is learning to defend it, which will come with awkward or tense moments. Remember that your “why” is a big one; you’re keeping your infant safer by warding off germs that could make them very sick. You’re one of the only voices they have in this world, so you have to be willing to use it—especially with difficult family members.

One benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is that most people are now accustomed to being mindful of illness. It’s certainly not out of left field to express concern over germs; combine that with seasonal RSV and the flu, and you’ve got plenty of relevant evidence that points to keeping safe distances from babies and those with weakened immune systems.

If a loved one dismisses your worry or protests your wishes or you start to sense defensiveness, simply remind them that it is your job to keep your baby from harm, and that is precisely what you’re doing, then move on. There are other people to see who won’t feel the need to smother your child. If you need an easy out, excuse yourself to feed or change your baby. The alone time will give you the chance to reset and gather your thoughts before reentering the party. Remember, you also need to take care of yourself.

Holiday gatherings can be a wonderful time for many families, especially if it’s the first time some family members are meeting their newest relative. But as you add to your brood, don’t be afraid to express how your own boundaries have changed and how your family can best support you during the baby phase. What matters most is that you feel you stood your ground, expressed clear boundaries, and protected your little one the best way possible—the way only a loving parent can.