"Now that my daughter is 18 months old, she has had the opportunity to attend birthday parties of other kids in her age range. One aspect of this that my husband and I are unsure of how to handle is the gift. All invitations we have received indicate something along the lines of "no present please, just your presence," or plainly put, "no gifts please." However, when we show up at the party with no gift, we always find a big pile of gifts and end up feeling very cheap. So, the next birthday we go to, we end up getting a gift, just so we don't feel guilty of committing some sort of faux pas. But I wonder, is the "no gifts" indication truly a wish - because like us, most people probably have more than enough toys lying around, and don't really want to write thank-you notes - or is it just a polite saying meant to be ignored?"
This super-annoys me. If you write "no gifts, please," it's because you either a) don't want gifts, or b) don't want people to feel compelled to bring a gift just for the sake of bringing a gift.
The Golden Rule should apply to this situation as it does to all others: Gift unto others as you want them to gift to you. So, for example, if you found the perfect thing that reminded you of a child or the parents, or something awesomely personalized, or something else really thoughtful, then please give it! But, if the invitation said "no gifts, please," the other people won't be bringing gifts and you don't want to make them feel bad by being conspicuous. So don't bring it and leave it on a table. Instead, give it to the parents quietly when you arrive, making sure they know that you understand the "no gifts" request but just couldn't pass this up because it reminded you so much of their child.
On the other hand, those of us with kids older than age 3 have undoubtedly been the recipients of gifts that were bought just to have something to give. And that's annoying. I'd rather just enjoy having a child at the party and see how happy my child is with his presence than know that the parent ran out to buy something that isn't something my kid's really going to like. Not only did it add some stress to the parent's life to have to buy something, but my child probably won't really enjoy it (or won't enjoy it for long). If you wouldn't want it in your house (which rules out most bleepy toys, Bratz, and anything that makes a noise when you sit on it), then don't give it to someone else.
If the invitation says "no gifts, please," then it's absolutely correct not to bring one. And not to apologize or feel bad about it! If you really feel like you should bring something, bring a bottle of wine for the parents, maybe with some jokey card about "wine for the whiney stage," or something like that. If they don't drink, maybe the Ames & Ilg book for that year, or a coupon for a kids-only playdate at your house so they can have some free time.
At a certain point, most kids figure out that birthdays usually mean presents, so you can't get away with a "no gifts" request. So take advantage of it while you can, and request "no gifts" if you don't want them, and don't bring one if someone else says "no gifts." You can always contribute to the economy in other ways.
For those years when you're going to have to go to lots of parties with gifts (once your kid hits elementary school), pick one present for the age, buy a dozen of them, and give them to every kid whose party your child goes to. Books are great for this, of course. Any other suggestions?