One writer reluctantly tries the super-popular “cake smash” trend, in which a baby is given a cake to destroy on her first birthday.
Credit: Regan Stephens

Last week I opened an email from Etsy advertising something called a “cake smash outfit.” While I had dabbled in baby cake smashing, the photo of this baby—adorned with a satellite dish-sized floral headband, adorable face resting casually atop a cake that looked fancier than the one served at my wedding—told me there was more to this offbeat, yet seemingly simple custom than I had previously realized.

When our now-five-year-old daughter turned one, we held a rollicking celebration at our local, kid-friendly bar. It was a joint party, and one of the other parents suggested we make each of the girls her own little cake, separate from the cupcakes we’d serve everyone else. Since everyone knows parenting rules only apply to your first baby, our daughter had never tasted refined sugar before and was mostly uninterested in her homespun, pink-frosted cake, instead opting for a nearby apple. (If this sounds like a backdoor brag, rest assured her palate is now firmly calibrated to ice cream and M&Ms.) Everyone laughed, we got a few iPhone photos and we called the party, and our parenting skills, a smashing success.

Fast-forward to baby number two, who probably (definitely) tasted (was devoted to) sugar before turning one. For her first birthday, we traded a big party for a small family dinner at a neighborhood restaurant known for the giant slabs of Funfetti cake on their dessert menu. We didn’t want to risk a cake-explosion at the restaurant, though she seemed to enjoy, and be sated by, the sliver we served her. But after clicking into that Etsy email—a Pandora’s Box filled with tiny tutus and glittery head gear—I was faced with the possibility that we robbed her of an obligatory childhood rite of passage. I frantically found a seller who made a Toddlers and Tiaras-type ensemble for second birthdays and coughed up $50 for a set that included a pair of bow-bedecked legwarmers. Surely it was a sign I had already taken this experiment too far.

But before diving in, I turned to the one place I knew people would have opinions to glean a little more info on this tradition. It turns out, baby cake smashing is almost as polarizing as politics on Facebook. One friend noted that while a little smash cake could be fun, adding special outfits and a photographer was just one more thing parents (specifically, moms) had to organize, often pouring over Pinterest for ideas and inspiration, and ultimately feel bad for falling short of the perfectly orchestrated mark. Like many things in this social media-saturated era of parenting, the ritual has become a thing, with an initially straightforward idea giving way to bakeries specializing in smash cakes (one friend said her bakery even included a smash cake standard with the birthday cake order), photographers selling packages dedicated to capture icing-spackled faces and a cottage industry of Etsy sellers stitching up costumes and cake toppers and colorful banners.

But with the notable exception of one responder who compared the ritual unfavorably to promposals and sprinkles (second-time-around baby showers), most people seemed to agree it was a harmlessly happy experience. Others even saw it as practical. “It was adorable and no one else at the party had to eat cake otherwise manhandled by a baby that was still using his hands as his primary mode of transportation,” said one friend, while another recounted the story of a party she’d attended where the parents served the same cake that the birthday boy had already gotten first, chubby-fisted dibs. “First and only time I ever said no to cake,” she deadpanned.

So with this in mind, I outfitted my two year old in her new, soon-to-be-destroyed, sparkly costume and with my camera ready, presented her with an entire eight-inch cake. She reveled in the costume, but seemed baffled by the flood of attention, testing the waters by dipping first a finger in the icing, and then her whole hand. After the initial thrill, though, her dubious face broadcasted a single questions: Why is no one stopping me wreck this cake? She then turned to my husband to restore sanity to the situation. “Dada cut,” she demanded reasonably. Maybe this is why second birthday smash cakes aren’t a thing? No matter. Her older sister stepped in to show her how to eat a cake with your hands, and after they had their fill of fun, you better believe the rest of us ate a slice.

Credit: Regan Stephens

Was it a little excessive? Yes. Did my kids eat cake for dinner? Sure. But did it also deliver a memorable moment of sheer joy for all parties involved? Undoubtedly. And after ingesting one too many political arguments on Facebook this year, who couldn’t do with that? As one friend put it: “Smash cakes are just fun! How many times in our lives do we get to smash a cake. Now that I think of it, I want one for my birthday this year!” What a smashing idea.