When it comes to stranger anxiety in babies, many are relieved that it’s not a phase that starts in the first few months of their lives. Just imagine your one-month-old baby not letting anyone else hold them except for you and your partner – phew, that’ll be one hell of a ride.

Here’s a quick backstory on this: Growing up as a young child, I didn’t know about the term “stranger anxiety” and no one around me seem to know about it. What they knew was that at a certain age, some babies get terribly fussy or cry when held by a stranger.

Hence, there were prayers from soon-to-be mums wanting babies that weren’t clingy to them but would let unfamiliar faces hold them.

Back to our focus, what’s stranger anxiety?

What is stranger anxiety in babies?

Stranger anxiety is a normal phase in a child’s development. It’s the child’s newfound ability to accurately distinguish between everyday familiar and unfamiliar faces. In other words, those they’re close to and those they aren’t close to.

Strangers in this case might be their aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends or neighbours whom the child doesn’t see every day and interact with. Heck, it can even be a familiar face with a strange new look.

At birth, a child might not be able to tell faces apart but as they grow older, they eventually develop this skill.

With an unfamiliar face or a stranger, children don’t feel so “safe”- you could say they are a bit wary.

Hence, they get anxious and worry if this person has what it takes to respond to their need the way an already familiar face will.

Have you seen the ABCs of parenting yet?

When do babies develop stranger anxiety?

Unlike newborn babies who are unable to tell faces apart, older babies who are about 8 months old can. And just as you feel uncomfortable or “wary” around strange faces, so does your little one at this age.

Babies get scared of strangers when they’re about 8 months old. For some babies, it can be early as 4 or 5 months and for others, it can come much later.

However, as babies near the age of two, their childhood fear of strangers begins to wane off.

How long does this phase last?

The duration and intensity of a child’s reaction varies from one child to another.  For some babies, the duration is as long as a few minutes but for others, it can be longer.

The intensity of their reaction ranges from being quiet to crying. Generally, most persons assume that only babies who cry or get fussy have stranger anxiety. Hence, if the baby seems calm or quiet, then they aren’t scared of strangers.

But that’s not true.

The difference between these two sets of babies is their anxiety levels. Babies who cry are more anxious about being held by unfamiliar faces while those who are quiet have lower levels of anxiety.

Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety

Separation anxiety is a near antonym of stranger anxiety and in this case, your little one is scared of you (the main caregiver) leaving. They’ll literally go nuts once they see you getting ready to leave the house, they get clingy and this is the stage where you devise more means to sneak out of your house.

These two milestones are often developed at around the same age. It’s not uncommon that a child who has stranger anxiety will have separation anxiety as well.

Signs of stranger anxiety in babies

The following are signs of stranger anxiety:

  1. Being quiet or shy, especially if your little one isn’t the quiet type AKA the social butterfly baby
  2. Fussiness
  3. Stretching for their primary caregiver, if the caregiver is within reach
  4. Crying
  5. Burying their face in your arms
  6. Hiding behind you – for toddlers

How to overcome (or deal with) stranger anxiety

What do you do when a baby won’t let you hold them?

1. Prepare for the heartbreak:

It’s actually quite heartbreaking when a child turns away from you (even worse when you’ve been bragging about been a baby-person to everyone). Understand that there’s a fat chance that the baby isn’t going to let you hold them at first.

2. Focus on them getting to know you:

How would you feel if a random stranger or someone you weren’t so familiar with kept touching you? The problem is that the little one doesn’t know you (yet) so, get down to their level and introduce yourself.

3. Talk and play with them:

When I’m not in a hurry and a baby won’t let me hold them, I just smile and say “game on, child” and the battle starts. What do I do? Most times, I start with peek-a-boo and if the parent is nearby, I involve the parent in our little play as well. Other times, I make funny faces or keep smiling sheepishly – the idea is to create a warm and friendly environment that makes the child feels safe and relaxed. We want them to let their guards down, so befriend them. Use a toy or something they like to get their attention, sing a song, be chatty, but don’t overdo it.

4. Give it a break:

a woman kissing a baby
Give the baby space

After a while of being friendly, take a step back and give the child some space. Don’t overwhelm your child with your presence, especially if the child isn’t comfortable with you yet. While being busy, make occasional eye-contact with the child and smile but don’t go close.

5. Other tips:

  • Don’t be hasty to stretch out your hands yet, keep your hands to yourself and play with the child.
  • Understand that babies have different levels of sociability. Try not to also make the baby the center of attraction (this is difficult) but it might overwhelm them.
  • Try not to hold the child against their wish. The exception is when parent is super busy and someone has to hold or watch the child. But if the parents aren’t busy and are around, then don’t forcefully hold the child.
  • Use soothing techniques to calm babies down when they get fussy or cry
  • Fingers crossed! It’s time to give it a try! And if the baby turns you down, read number 4 again.

What can parents do?

  1. When leaving your child with a distant relative or a new babysitter, let the person come in a little earlier and familiarize with the baby.
  2. Let your baby see that you’re comfortable and friendly with the “stranger”
  3. Soothe and empathize with your child as they confront these big feelings.

Keynote

Stranger anxiety in babies is a common and normal phase that babies go through. It happens at about the age of 8 months. This phase will go away on/before the age of two, hence there’s really no need to bother. However, if you feel your baby’s reaction is different and worrisome, then speak with a child psychologist.

When your little one is scared/anxious about being held by an unfamiliar face, focus on calming those big overwhelming feelings.

Moreover, studies are still being carried out on the subject, especially as to how it might relate to emotional security or the risk of developing anxiety as an older child.


Naga Odigie

When I'm not obsessing about the wonders and dynamics of the human brain, I'm a secondary caregiver and a biomedical scientist roaming the city of Benin.

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