Babies between the ages of six and 12 months become increasingly aware of the world around them. They can identify familiar faces and develop healthy relationships with parents and caregivers. However, when babies are in the company of unfamiliar people or strangers, they experience panic and distress, which is called stranger anxiety (1).
Stranger anxiety is usually characterized by anxiousness, crankiness, and fright around strangers. For first-time parents, this phase may feel over whelming. But it is part of the baby’s normal development, and the behavior is manageable.
In this post, learn about stranger anxiety in babies, its likely causes, and ways to help the baby cope easily.
What Is The Difference Between Stranger And Separation Anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stranger anxiety is a feeling of distress that the baby experiences around unfamiliar people (2). On the other hand, separation anxiety is the feeling of fear and apprehension experienced when the baby is away from their parents/caregiver (3). Both developmental events begin around the same time, however, they are different.
Babies and toddlers with stranger anxiety tend to remain anxious until the stranger leaves or develops a rapport with them. During the episodes of anxiety, the baby/ toddler displays distress by:
- Crawling away or facing away from the stranger
- Crying inconsolably
- Hiding behind the parent’s back or in the lap
- Covering their face and freezing in arms
- Avoiding eye contact with the stranger
The duration and intensity of these signs vary child-to-child. Stranger anxiety usually begins around seven months of age, with a peak from 12 to 15 months, and gradual waning by two years of age (4) (5).
What Causes Stranger Anxiety?
As babies grow, they acquire an ability to differentiate between people. A combination of cognitive and emotional developments makes them emotionally attached to parents, primary caregivers, and other familiar people. It leads to a sense of emotional calm around caregivers and anxiety around unfamiliar people.
The baby likes to eat, play, sleep, and be around familiar people only. Interference of an unfamiliar person triggers unrest, leading to fussy and clingy behavior that signifies stranger anxiety.
This phase can be bothersome and annoying for you and the baby, but persistent efforts, calm demeanor, and effective coping strategies could help.
How To Help Babies Cope With Stranger Anxiety?
- Acknowledge stranger anxiety.Begin by positively acknowledging the baby/toddler’s fear of strangers. Hold their hand, encourage them sit in your lap, and talk to them continuously. Tell them about the stranger and encourage them to say “hi” and “goodbye” with smiles and gestures.
- Introduce the baby to new people from a young age. Ensure the meetings are consistent. Leaving a baby with a stranger suddenly can make them feel distressed and uncomfortable. Thus, invite the baby spend some time with the stranger and play interactive games in your presence. This will help the baby feel safe and comfortable. If possible, introduce the stranger first at home and then in a different setting.
- Be patient and calm when your baby/toddler behaves anxiously. Instead of being pushy or annoyed yourself, stay calm, and show positive emotions, like hugs and kisses while comforting them. Give them ample time to adjust and remember, every baby/toddler is different and has a unique way of knowing and acquainting with others. Follow their social cues and support them to overcome their fear and anxiety.
- Set the right examples from a young age. As babies and toddlers learn through observation, set an example. By talking to familiar and unfamiliar people in a soft tone and a warm smile. Watching you greet, laugh, and talk with people in a pleasant manner might make a baby/toddler feel motivated to interact.
If your baby continues to be upset, shift the baby away from the stranger, give them their favorite toy, or play their favorite game. Try to introduce the baby to the stranger again after some time.
Getting Help For Stranger Anxiety
For most toddlers, fear of strangers abates by the time they turn two. However, in some cases, the anxiety may persist and even increase in its intensity. In such cases, it is good to consult a healthcare professional. Research shows stranger anxiety could also occur due to genetic factors (7). If there is a family history of stranger anxiety or your baby’s elder sibling had the same issues, you may consult a healthcare provider earlier to mitigate any risk of behavioral problems.
Stranger anxiety is a normal event in your infant’s healthy socio-emotional and cognitive development. Help your baby pass through the phase with ease by taking cognizance of their emotional cues and providing prompt emotional support. Physical reassurance, like hugs and kisses, and continued use of coping strategies could help babies and toddlers outgrow stranger fear comfortably.
2. Stranger anxiety; APA Dictionary of Psychology; APA
3. Separation anxiety; APA Dictionary of Psychology; APA
4. Stranger anxiety; Center for Effective Parenting
5. Fear of strangers: babies and young children; Raising Children
6. Fear Of Strangers: Babies And Young Children; Government of Singapore
7. Rebecca J. Brooker et al.; The Development of Stranger Fear in Infancy and Toddlerhood: Normative Development, Individual Differences, Antecedents, and Outcomes; NCBI