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Why didn’t anyone tell me that my baby can become distressed and cry if an unfamiliar face approaches them?

If your baby often gets upset when an unfamiliar face approaches them, don’t be alarmed... this is a good thing.

Having stranger anxiety is an important self-protective sign that your baby is well-attached to you. Your baby is recognizing that there is a difference between your face, voice, scent and touch compared to others. Stranger anxiety can appear in babies as young as 3-months of age, but typically it starts between 6-9 months.

Stranger anxiety is a normal developmental milestone. It means when a young child becomes visibly upset and hard to console when someone other than a familiar face, such as parents or other primary caregiver, comes near. Stranger anxiety should not be misinterpreted as a child being “spoiled,” even if the ones being shunned are Grandma and Grandpa.

The best way to deal with stranger anxiety includes some of the following tips:

  • Hold your baby close to you, let them cry and do not force them to go with the other person right away; soothe your baby with kind words and rock them gently so they know you are near.
  • Give your baby time to “warm-up” and when the crying has slowed down a bit, move the baby to a favorite toy, blanket or play space.
  • Sit alongside your baby for a few minutes so they know you are not rushing off and leaving them.
  • Give your baby as much comfort as possible and be extra sensitive to this milestone.
  • When leaving your baby with a babysitter or at a child care center, say good-bye to your baby and let him know you will return.

  • Stranger anxiety can last through the baby’s first year, and even re-appear, from 18-24 months. During this time frame other solutions may include the following:

    1. Greet friends and relatives so the baby can see your acceptance of these new people.
    2. Stay close to your baby when you are out in the community where there are strangers.
    3. Avoid forcing your baby to interact with a person if he appears to be anxious.
    4. Ask friends and relatives to be sensitive with your baby.
    5. Give your baby time to warm up to the relatives, friends or strangers.
    6. Comfort your baby … remember his fear is real.
    7. Pay attention to your baby’s signals of being anxious

    8. Little Olivia and I were going into her baby room at the infant-toddler center when the caregiver she has known since she was 6 weeks old came up and greeted us, “Well, look who’s here this morning with her Mommy; how is my sweet Olivia this morning!”  With outstretched arms the caregiver, Miss Martha, reached to take Olivia from me in the typical fashion and suddenly Olivia stiffened, wriggled away, buried her face in my shoulder and looked fearful.  Miss Martha continued to coo at my 6-month old daughter but carefully watched the reaction which was not the usual smiling exchange of pleasantries.  She smiled at me as Olivia began to wail and pull away from Miss Martha’s welcoming arms. I was horrified and did not know what to do!

      Miss Martha, an experienced early childhood professional, looked at me and calmly said, “Well, my goodness, Olivia has reached an important milestone today.  It is called “stranger anxiety” and it is perfectly normal."  As Miss Martha collected Olivia's favorite toy, I lovingly reassured Olivia that I would be back and said "good-bye."
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