- Tammy

My Top 5 Tips for Managing Toddlers During Photo Sessions

Helping others is written into my DNA so I’d like to share this list with you. I’ve been photographing toddlers for 12 years and I am by no means an expert toddler wrangler. But, I’ve experienced pretty much every scenario and I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully you will find all or some of this useful. These tips are aimed at helping photographers, parents, and caregivers manage toddlers during photo sessions. And with that, here are my top five tips in countdown style:

#5. Avoid uncomfortable shoes and clothing.

Almost all of us have been there… shopping for the latest trends, picking themes and color schemes and dressing toddlers like dolls to show them off. Why do we do this? Let’s face it, formalwear is uncomfortable (for literally everyone) and toddlers can’t fully express what is agitating them. So if those shoe straps are digging in or there’s a plastic thread poking their necks, they’re probably going to get a wee bit cranky. And let’s not forget they’re already wearing a diaper. Need I say more?

Instead, I suggest an outfit and fabrics that are classically comfortable such as easy slip-on dresses and jersey knit cotton. Who doesn’t love taking a pretend nibble out of a toddler foot? Forget the shoes! Let’s see those baby feet! Definitely forget the belt. Trust me on this: there’s plenty of time to dress them with all the accessories when they get older (and then they start taking yours when they turn 15).

Note: It's also a good idea to have an extra outfit in the event of some milk dribble or a diaper blow out.

#4. Schedule around meals and nap times.

All living creatures have needs for survival and development. For toddlers, fulfilling their needs is paramount. Proper hydration, nutrition and sleep are of the utmost importance in child development. Just like we adults feel good when our needs are properly met, so is true for little ones. If your toddler’s typical schedule calls for a nap at 1:30 pm, you probably shouldn’t have a session scheduled for 1:45 pm. Instead, allow them to get as much snoozing as possible and plan to have the session afterward. You will not regret it.

If all else fails and the little one is simply restless, stay calm. Sometimes they may have a bit of a runny nose, or perhaps some teeth are cutting through but be comforting and be prepared to be in some of the shots (even if they're going to be tossed out). Often times I find that when a parent spends just a couple of minutes soothing and offering a shoulder to cry on, the toddler will sniff in all the sniffles and will get back in the game quite easily.

#3. Build trust.

This one probably pertains more to photographers but parents are accountable too. Once a baby becomes more aware of his surroundings and the faces he sees regularly, stranger anxiety (also referred to as separation anxiety) may develop and it’s completely normal. This “stage,” we shall call it, can start around 9 months of age. I’ll leave it to the experts to discuss why and the details. Just know that it’s real thing and bribery doesn't really make a child feel safer. If proper steps aren't taken to build trust, bribery can result in the child feeling duped which is not good.

Think about it, many babies and children have never seen a large, professional camera. Now imagine a complete stranger pointing it at them... it's not uncommon for this to make toddlers (and adults even) uncomfortable. What I do first is smile (with my mouth, my eyes, and my soul). I also ensure that there is plenty of calm and pleasant interaction between myself and the parents. When little ones see and feel trusting communication and exchanges involving their parents, they will eventually trust also. And it may take a few minutes, but gaining trust first is so incredibly important.

To assist in trust building, I will sit on the ground and open my camera bag for the child to peer into and look around just a little. They will look at me and the bag contents with curiosity and I will ensure them that it's ok to touch (and by this I mean a little finger touching the camera body or the outside of a lens; I don't suggest letting them pull anything out of the bag, for obvious reasons). I also have "lens buddies." Lens buddies are most often cute little crocheted or stuffed characters with elastic to fit them around just about any lens. I purchased one of mine on Etsy and the other from a local gal.

A quick snap a parent captured of me getting ready to start along with my 2 lens buddies. The bottom right shows a buddy on a 24-70 mm lens.

Once the child chooses which buddy he'd like to see, I ask him to give it a name (and parents help). This is the name we use for the session and it helps to keep the child focused on the lens and entertained. Here's a link to get you started: lens buddies. For more on separation anxiety, you could start here.

#2. Match the child's energy.

Think about a time when you entered a room full of strangers like a classroom or a party. We all have vibrations and energy that radiate and it doesn't take long for us to "feel" to whom we will gravitate and connect with. It's based upon matching energies and children feel it like we do. My approach is to first observe the child's mood and personality. Is she cranky and pouty? Is she shy and hiding her face in mommy's skirt? Perhaps she's bonkers with energy and is ready to run. I've had children reach straight for me for hugs right from the start. But whatever the mood, I match it and this helps to create an instant connection. I don't mean that if the child is pouty and cranky that I too act cranky, I just mean I dial down my own excitement and will see if her attention starts to focus on something curious or interesting such as my camera or the silly socks I'm wearing. This ties into #3.

Personalities are just beginning to emerge during this time in a child's development and carefully observing which traits are starting to surface is very important. Some are friendly, playful, and outgoing while others are more serious and reserved. Your images should reflect the child's natural expressions, moods, and energy and not something forced. If the child is excited, act excited with them perhaps with lots of clapping and sounds. If the child is more reserved, then channel that softer, quieter mood. I use an excellent calming sound app called Rain Rain on my phone to help create a soothing atmosphere. It's also very important for the parents to match the same energy for the session.

#1. Manage your expectations.

I have other tips I can add to this list, but I think this tip will always be my number one. This goes for parents and photographers: manage your expectations and set them appropriately. Yes, it's easy to envision that your toddler will gaze into the sky, a butterfly will land on her finger, she'll smile at the camera and everything will be just perfect. And sometimes, that does happen! But we shouldn't expect it to nor should we be disappointed when it doesn't happen. Toddlers have good days and not so good days (again, just like adults) so it's important to remember that anything can happen on the day of the session.

Photographers and parents should at least have a phone consultation to discuss expectations, ideas, personality types, etc. In fact, it's extremely important. If possible, you could meet together with the child prior to the session to start building a rapport. Communication is key and it's important to understand the child's current developments and to discuss what could work and what definitely wouldn't work during the session. You should also be willing to experiment. Take sibling photos for example; during a family newborn session that includes a toddler-aged sibling, parents often have the expectation that the toddler will behave perfectly and will "hold" his newborn sibling and gently and lovingly kiss the top of the baby's head. Sometimes it works, and sometimes we have to toss the idea and try something else. That's OK! They are t-o-d-d-l-e-r-s.

Additionally, age appropriate behavior should be expected and allowed. For example, MOVEMENT. Toddlers move a lot. They're wiggly, fidgety, antsy and the runners like to run. Sometimes I'm chasing and running the entire session. But again, that's OK! Expecting them to sit completely still, look straight ahead, smile the perfect princess smile... just, no. Please don't expect that.

Instead, embrace what makes a toddler a toddler. Capture the running, the sillies, the wiggles, the pouts, the random "I'm just going to lie down right here" and anything else that represents what toddlers do naturally. Staying calm, offering firm but loving correction and going with the flow will help to keep the session positive and moving along. I'm a parent of three teenagers and I remember the toddler days quite clearly so I completely understand that it can be very frustrating when a child is acting uncooperative. But acting out on that frustration is a big no as doing so will not do anything to help improve the child's demeanor. If a toddler tantrum is imminent, exercise patience. Lots and lots of patience. Tantrums do not last forever. Again, staying calm is key (as is choosing a photographer who has loads of patience, experience and understanding). *wink* It's also important to know your photographer's session policies in terms of subject cooperation.

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