#31Days 250It’s your toddler’s first visit to see Santa at the mall. You’ve dressed her in her holiday best for that iconic photo on the bearded man’s lap and hope for the best. But things may not turn out as you plan.

Not every child is going to be happy about sitting on the lap of a strange large man dressed in a costume and sporting a huge white beard. Make the outing fun for both of you by keeping these tips in mind.

Related: Childproof Your Home for the Holidays

Set the stage in advance. Prep ahead by pointing out photos of St. Nick in books, magazines or catalogs. “Show your child what Santa looks like and talk about what the visit will be like,” suggests Lori Woodring, PhD, a child psychologist, author and mom of four.

Explain that you’ll wait in line with other kids and their parents for a turn to sit on Santa’s lap. Help her plan what to say to him — she doesn't have to offer a wish list of presents, she can just say "Hello," or ask him a question about his reindeer or elves.

Time the visit right. According to Woodring, your child’s comfort is more important than trying to schedule a mall trip for when lines may be shorter. Don’t even think of seeing Santa with a kid who’s missed a meal. Same goes for a nap — plan your visit for when your little one will be well rested.

Bring your own entertainment. Even a child who’s in a good mood and has a full belly won’t love waiting in a long line. Be sure to bring along a toy or book to amuse her while you wait.

Make her comfortable. Don’t forget to remove the child's outerwear while you wait. Over-bundling is a one-way street to cranky town. So are hot, uncomfortable or itchy clothes, something to consider when you choose your child's camera-ready outfit.

Related: Quiz: Do You Know How to Keep Your Baby Warm and Safe this Winter?

Take it slow. If your child is nervous about meeting Santa, walk past him several times, suggests parenting expert Maggie Stevens, author of "The Parent Fix." Let him get comfortable with the idea of just being near Santa. Encourage her to give a little wave. Once he’s done this a couple of times, he may be ready to get in line.

Don't force it. Kids under 4 may find the whole thing overwhelming. “Infants are often more adaptable to strangers than toddlers, but some babies start to experience anxiety as early as six months,” explains Woodring.

If your little one balks at climbing onto Santa’s lap, “the worst thing you can do is force her,” notes Stevens. Even if you’ve waited a long time and no matter how much you want that photo, be respectful of her fear. Suggest she stand beside Santa for the photo or ask her if she’ll feel better if an older sibling joins her. If gentle reassurance won’t ease her anxiety, “don’t try to cajole her by saying things like, “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of’ or ‘If you don’t do this, then no presents!’” Stevens adds.

Apply hand sanitizer after the visit. Imagine how often Santa was sneezed or coughed on prior to your child's turn on his lap. Enough said. Apply hand sanitizer to your child's hands after the visit — and make sure he or she washes up with soap and water when you get home. If your child is old enough for a flu shot or nasal spray flu vaccine, it’s a good idea to get it ahead of time.

Practice mall safety smarts. The mall itself can present safety issues during the holidays. “Going to shopping centers with small children is similar to visiting an amusement park, concert or other crowded venue,” says David Levenberg, a mall and retail expert at Center Security Services in Boca Raton, Florida. If you’re with a group, make a plan in case someone gets separated from the group or gets lost.

Related: How Not to Lose Your Child in a Crowd

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.