When babies are new to the world, they’re often happy to be passed from one person’s arms to the next without much fuss as long as they’re full, warm, and comfortable. As babies get a little older though, it’s not uncommon for them to begin to fear being passed to unfamiliar arms.
While there’s something to be said for baby wanting to be in your arms all the time, sometimes you want to drink a cup of coffee while it’s still hot or just get out of the house for a while — because let’s be real, mama needs a break!
Naturally, it can be frustrating when your previously easygoing baby turns into a sobbing, clingy mess when a new babysitter or stranger is in their presence. However, rest assured this behavior is developmentally normal.
Stranger anxiety is the distress that babies experience when they meet or are left in the care of people who are unfamiliar to them.
Stranger anxiety is a perfectly normal developmental stage that often begins around 6 to 8 months. Stranger anxiety typically peaks between 12 and 15 months and then begins to gradually decrease as your baby continues to grow and develop.
The development of stranger anxiety coincides with a baby’s budding sense of organization and order in the world. Around the time that stranger anxiety begins, baby realizes that the relationship they have with the people they spend the most time with (often their parents) is different than the relationship they have with strangers and other people they don’t know well.
As they realize this, babies seek out the familiar and express distress around the unfamiliar.
Stranger vs. separation anxiety
While stranger anxiety and separation anxiety often begin to develop around the same time, they are distinct developmental milestones.
Stranger anxiety refers to a baby’s distress around meeting or being left in the care of unfamiliar people, while separation anxiety refers to a baby’s distress around being left alone or separated from their parents or primary caregivers.
If a child experiences distress when being left with a familiar grandparent or regular caregiver, they’re likely experiencing separation anxiety, not stranger anxiety.
If a baby expresses distress when approached by an unfamiliar individual or when being left with someone new, they are likely experiencing stranger anxiety.
While stranger anxiety is normal and to be expected, the intensity and duration of the distress experienced by any individual baby, along with the ways that distress is expressed, may differ greatly from baby to baby.
Some babies express their distress by “freezing” in your arms. They may remain very still and quiet with a frightened expression on their face until the stranger leaves or they begin to feel more comfortable around them.
Other babies might express their distress in more obvious ways such as crying, trying to hide their face in your chest or clinging tightly to you.
Older toddlers who are more verbal and mobile might try to hide behind you or express verbally that they want to stay with you or want you to hold them.
While the research on separation anxiety is more robust than that of stranger anxiety, scientists have delved into the topic.
Further, a 2011 study points out that research has primarily focused on mothers, but fathers are also a factor (Can we get an “about time they noticed” here?). In fact, the researchers noted that in some cases the father’s reaction may be more significant than the mother’s in cases of developing stranger and social anxiety.
So what does all this mean? Are all babies with stranger anxiety destined to be anxious kids in elementary school? Are parents with anxiety destined to pass this along to their children? Not necessarily. So many factors are at play with a child’s social, emotional, and developmental growth.
While you can’t prevent your baby’s fear or anxiety, especially during this normal developmental stage, you can be aware of how you react to their feelings and encourage positive interactions.
While the distress associated with stranger anxiety is normal, there are many strategies you can use to help your baby through this challenging stage with care, empathy, and kindness.
- Recognize that every child is different. Every baby will warm to new people at their own pace. When you recognize that your child’s hesitancy to interact with new people is normal, you may be more likely to muster the patience it takes to help them move through the big emotions associated with stranger anxiety.
- Take practical steps to help your baby feel comfortable meeting new people. This can include introducing anyone new to the baby gradually instead of suddenly. For example, if you hope to leave your child with a new babysitter, you can have the sitter spend some time with the family together first before you attempt to leave the child alone with them. Have the sitter visit with you and play games for some friendly interaction. If you’re enthusiastic and upbeat, your baby will gather that this new person is pleasant and trustworthy.
- Use a gradual warm-up strategy even with those close to you. Suddenly people your baby previously was happy to see, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, or family friends, may be a source of stress for your little one. It can be especially challenging when your baby acts as if their loving grandparent is a stranger, but these fears are developmentally normal. Encouraging a gradual warm-up period to allow for their comfort will make interactions more positive.
- Support your baby as they experience these big, uncomfortable emotions. Experts recommend that you not ignore your child’s distress or pressure them to rein in their response prematurely. Pressuring a baby to go with or be held by a stranger before they’re ready can often increase anxiety and make the next time they meet a stranger even more stressful.
- Stay calm and keep it positive. When your baby is distressed about being left with a new caregiver or being introduced (or re-introduced) to someone new, try to maintain a positive and comforting tone and demeanor as you comfort them both verbally and physically. You can hold and talk to them as they move through their distress, give them lots of hugs and kisses, or sing a favorite song until they begin to feel more comfortable with the situation.
- Manage other people’s expectations. While your baby’s reluctance to be cuddled by a visiting grandparent is normal, it can cause some hurt feelings if grandparents are not expecting it. You can help others manage their expectations and create a successful introduction by talking to them in advance about your baby’s need to warm up slowly and by offering suggestions for how to successfully interact with your baby when they do meet.
- Offer advice to eager friends (who are considered strangers by baby). Recommending that they speak in a calm, soft tone or that they offer a familiar toy can help to ease introductions and let baby relax and feel comfortable. Ask them to give your little one plenty of time to get comfortable before trying to hold or cuddle them.
- Introduce baby to new people frequently from a young age. Wear baby facing outward in their carrier (once it is safe to do so) to allow them to become accustomed to seeing new and unfamiliar faces and you can model warm, comfortable interactions with strangers. You can also allow others to hold, play with, and care for your young baby as long as you are comfortable doing so.
The development of stranger anxiety can be a challenging period for both you and your child. While your little one is experiencing lots of big, frightening emotions, you might get frustrated that they seem fussy, clingy, or unsociable.
Stranger anxiety is normal though, and with the right balance of warmth and comfort it typically passes before a child’s second birthday.
As you move through the stranger anxiety phase, remember to be patient with your child, cuddle and comfort them as needed, and try to remain calm and warm as they experience distress. Allowing them time and staying patient through this phase will make for happier days ahead for both of you.