Thursday, January 21, 2010

When Stranger Anxiety Isn't Only For Strangers

Recently, one of our readers told us that her 3-month-old had been frightened inadvertently by her great-grandmother. Concerned that her baby and her great-grandmother were upset by the incident, she asked, "Why do babies tend to get scared of "strangers" around 6 months? What can parents do about it to help their child? Also, how should parents respond to the 'stranger' in that moment?" It is upsetting when babies shrink away or cry when introduced to our closest friends and relatives but "stranger anxiety" is a positive sign of infant development. While a 3-month-old is quite young to have this kind of reaction, other factors may have played a role in what happened. In this post, we'll take a closer look at babies' "stranger anxiety" that isn't always restricted to "strangers."


Stranger Anxiety and or Too Much Stimulation?


Stranger anxiety refers to a nearly universal behavior of babies that starts when babies reach about 6 months. Very young babies typically don't show concern when they see someone they haven't seen before. They may even look at new people for quite awhile, as if they were studying them, trying to figure out if they have seen them before. Young babies don't care very much about who is holding them and they don't get upset by being passed from relative to relative at family gatherings, unless all the excitement becomes too much for them and they have a meltdown.

While all babies develop at their own pace, most 3-month-old babies don't have stranger anxiety. It is more common that younger babies get upset because of over stimulation, too much noise, too many new faces, or things coming too close, too quickly. Many loving relatives want to reach out and hold a baby close to them while excitedly talking or laughing. For babies who need the pace to be a little slower, that kind of handling can be scary. You know your baby better than anyone; you'll know if your baby is "slow to warm up," meaning that she needs a little time for introductions to go smoothly. When you come to a gathering of excited friends and relatives, a quick explanation about why you need to hold the baby and take things slowly may be necessary. You can watch for the early signs that your baby needs a break from the group and point them out to everyone. That will keep the crying to a minimum.

Instincts Keep Baby Close Just When She's Able to Move Away

Sometime around 6 months, babies get worried about being around people that they don't see everyday. You may see your baby's "disengagement cues" at the very first sight of friends and relatives. She may cling to you frantically and cry if anyone else tries to hold her. Even though this reaction may be inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing, it is an important step for your baby. Stranger anxiety signals two good things. First, your baby has decided that you represent a safe haven for her. Second, your baby is probably gaining physical skills that allow her to move away from you like rolling, creeping, and crawling. Her anxiety ensures that she doesn't move too far away from those who will protect her. As she improves her skills to explore her world, her instincts tell her to stay close. Stranger anxiety doesn't completely go away but lessens by the time babies are 18 to 24 months old.

Dealing with Meltdowns

What should you do if your baby has already panicked and refused to be held by your very best friend or your great-grandmother? Taking a moment to calm your baby is the obvious first step. After your baby is calm, it will be important ensure that your friend or relative does not take the baby's reaction personally. Explain what has happened and why. Bring the baby back for a more peaceful introduction, letting the baby set the pace. You don't want to overreact to these situations; stay calm and confident and reassure your baby. Let her know that you understand what she feels but you also know that your friend or family member is someone you trust. You should be the safe haven your baby needs but at the same time, you don't want her fears to prevent her from the important work she has to do to learn about the world and relationships.

Next time: New Babies, Growing Families and Fitting In

26 comments:

  1. How about separation anxiety? We think our almost 8 month old son is experiencing separation anxiety. He cries as soon as we are no longer in eye contact, even if we are in the same room.

    What are some signs? What can we do to allay his fears? Thank you.

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  2. My 3 month old curls her lower lip and cries when my mother says hi to her

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    1. My son has been doing that, too. He would curl his lips and then starts crying, then bawling, then shrieking. It's a bit embarrassing but it's a part of his development. lol. I'm hoping to get him a bit more used to strangers when in the presence of mom or dad...

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    2. My baby girl is 4 months old & recently started doing this to my husbands parents & sister it had been a little over a week since she saw them & the minute they started talking to she curled that bottom lip & cried like she was broken hearted, she did sane thing with my grandmother & some close friends but she doesnt do it with my parents (which we see them on weekends & for days at a time so don't know if this makes a difference) all I know is u feel so bad for his in laws when she does this, Dora anyone know how long this stage can last? & maybe some ways to help it???

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    3. Don't worry about your baby's negativ approach toward your in-laws. It is a positive sign toward your baby's mental development and on your in-laws part, they shouldn't take her/his behavior personally, with the time they will find each other to love, like, and be happy together. We can't expect too much from a three month old baby.

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  3. my 3 month old has stranger anxiety. anyone other than myself or fiance', she will cry. and it's not a regular cry it's a very hard intense cry. it worries me a lot because i'll be going back to work soon and will have to put her in daycare. i don't want her to lose her trust in me. i don't want her to feel like mommy isn't coming back or i'm not safe anymore.

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  4. I'm scared my baby would not. E attached to me. I take care of her on my own but she doesn't show any sign of wanting me. She is 4 months and 1 week old

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  5. If you are worried about your baby (and it sounds like you are), it is important that you take your baby to see a doctor. The doctor can help you understand what might be happening. Best wishes from all of us.

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  6. To the mother of the 3 month old - we'll answer your questions in an upcoming post. Very soon!

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  7. Thanks for reposting this for the holidays... my son turned six months just after Thanksgiving, so not surprisingly that was our first experience with major stranger anxiety. He saw more new people and places in 3 days than in the past 3 months! With Hanukkah and Christmas both coming up this week, these are some wonderful tips. Thank you!

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  8. my baby is 15 months old now and she's slowing recovering from her stranger anxiety. she acquired this since she was around 7 months. i'm just lucky relatives don't take it personally and understands her.

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  9. My baby does not cry, she WAILS when someone "new" holds her. It takes hours on end to calm her down. Hope this passes soon; started when she was 3 months old.

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    1. Thank goodness I'm not alone. My bubba girl who's 3 1/2 months is exactly the same I was getting so worried she was broken lol. I hate taking her anywhere for the reason it takes hours for her to calm down and it only takes a look to set her off again. It's exhausting

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    2. my 18 mo old loses it with new people paying attention to her AND people she knows. it IS exhausting.

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    3. My baby started at 9 weeks - crying when others held her (hysteria!) until I took her back, whereupon she's all smiles. She's a bit more comfortable now, but I have to be close by, within eye and ear shot, and she keeps looking to check.She's not great with large groups of people that keep getting in her face either. I know it will take time and she's just a cautious little person, but sometimes trying to explain that to other people who think she needs to "get over it" is very hard. A 24 week old doesn't just "get over it"....

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  10. My 4 month old baby will not go to anyone else apart from me she really screams and will not stop till I have her back. I'm getting really concerned as I go back to work soon.

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  11. My son is 4 Months old. He started at 3 months with stranger anxiety. I had never heard about this before. The only people that he will let near him...without poking out his bottom lip and screaming in terror...is Myself, my husband, my daughter and his Daycare provider. I feel so helpless. I wish there was some way to ease his fear. Do any of you have any suggestions? The thought that he's going to be scared of every other human until he's 2 yr old, is too much to handle. I just want him to be the sweet, happy, funny baby that he is at home...with everyone else!!

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  12. My little sister is 1 yr old and she cries whenever she goes near my best friend or my dad. (its my stepdads and mums baby) she just stares at them from afar

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  13. Myn lil boy is 3 months abd already has it... ppl say he's too young, but NO! He pokes his bottom lip out and screams!! So YES! They can have stranger anxiety at only 3 months.

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  14. My daughter cries and screams out loud non-stop when she goes to visit her grandparents or any other relatives... and nothing really comforts her except bringing her back home. Sometimes she stops crying right after we get in the car to go home. Its so embarrassing... and it makes me nervous... I don't know what to do... she's a happy baby at home. She started this at 3-months-old... she'll be four months in a week

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    1. Try to see her as what she is right now...just a baby. Everything is a brand new never before seen experience. And who cares about what an adult thinks,feels over a baby? The mature ones should display adult traits and let the babies grow. Like they need to grow.
      And I do speak from my own daughter's speration anxiety and her huge family from my husband's side. Even when she hyperventilated they wouldnt give up trying not only to take her from my sight as she screamed for me but keep me from taking her back. I took her back,because she is my priority not their opinion of me or her.

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  15. My daughter started her stranger anxiety when she was around 4 months old. I think the first time was over stimulation and too many new people but not too long afterwards, it was obvious she needed some time to warm up to people. Some family members take it personally and insist she "always cries" but she is really happy...except when they hold her. I try and just roll with it. She is 10 months now and she does enjoy people and an audience. She will even let friends and strangers hold her, sometimes. It has to be on her terms and not right away...and if she is tired, FORGET IT! My advice is just be comforting to your baby and don't force new people on her but try and take it slow, if you can. Introduce her to new people, talk about how nice the new people are and I think the baby will start to grow out of it (gradually!). My little one seems to be slowly gaining trust. I usually try and always have someone hold her for at least a little bit. (she's great with kids though...it's adults she doesn't trust right away, can you blame the babies!)

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  16. my daughter is 17months and has super stranger anxiety. when we are around more then 1 new person or even family member she goes bananas. takes her about 1-2 hours to warm up to the new enviroment. i think its all the talking and excitement that overwhelms her. i also am a stay at home mom and most of the time its just me and her alone at home, so that probably has sonething to do with it.

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  17. Why would it be embarrassing if your baby cries when carried by strangers? Why would anyone be embarrassed of their baby doing what's natural to him/her??

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  18. I knew of this but my daughter is almost 6 months old and she was terrified because he had completely shaved his face and had his hair down for once and i just got done with her bath when he walked out from the bathroom and tried to make her smile and she stuck out that bottom lip and screamed for about 20 minutes until she realized who he was when he put his hair in a ponytail and sang to her. He felt so helpless, i did too but she finally calmed down. i will never be embarressed of it. we will take it slow with other people from now on and just explain to them that they cannot take it personally. I love her so much and it just means that we are her safe haven.

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  19. To the one who said about the 1 yr old still not going tl anyone dont worry hun my daughter did it till she was 2 yrs.. shes only JUST starting to love my.mil its grandma everything now but she used to scream and scream until daddy would take her.. I couldn't even get her to stop it was heartbreaking for my mil so she stopped coming around until we explained it to her that she had to come over heaps more so she got used to her. They are gorgeous together now she cries when grandma leaves

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