When babies are 6-8 months old, their parents often come to me in great distress. They tell me that their babies who are cheerful and playful at home, start crying in fright when they meet strangers. They become clingy, refuse to leave their parents laps and play or go to anyone else’s lap. This is both inconvenient and embarrassing.
“What has happened to my baby?” the exhausted and exasperated parents ask.
My reply is “Your baby is developing stranger anxiety.”
Why do babies develop stranger anxiety?
Babies develop stranger anxiety when their brains grow.
Stranger anxiety is a sign that your baby’s memory is now large enough to hold an image of your face and compare it with the stranger’s face and realize that the two faces are different. This is a cognitive milestone.
The development of stranger anxiety also shows that the process of attachment to the primary figures (parents) is complete. This is an emotional milestone.
Why is the development of stranger anxiety important?
The loud crying that your baby begins as soon as they see a stranger is a sign that things are progressing well.
- Stranger anxiety is a protective mechanism. It prevents babies who can crawl and walk from going away with strangers.
- The onset of stranger anxiety denotes that the child now can compare and identify differences. This is important in –
- Learning to read. It is the way a baby understands that ‘b’ is different from ‘d’
- Learning math. It is the way that babies identify that, 3 apples are more than 2 apples.
- Learning to identify and remember colours, shapes etc.
How to manage stranger anxiety?
- Do not introduce strangers when your baby is hungry, tired, or unwell.
- Do not force your baby to give in to hugging or kissing or being carried by strangers.
- Do not be in a hurry to put your baby down when you meet new people or go to a new place.
- If you are trying to introduce a new caregiver into the family – for the first few days have them come to the house and talk to you without paying any attention to your baby. Then ask them to start doing something your baby likes like shaking a rattle at a distance sometimes. This will make your baby curious and go to the new person.
- Never leave your sleeping or playing child with strangers and sneak away. Expect and tolerate your child’s protest. Never violate their trust.
- When you meet your baby after a separation, hold them until they are ready to separate. Prioritize this over household or other work. Check this link to know more about overcoming separation anxiety.
- Take your baby to the park and grocery store so that they have an opportunity to see many strangers.
Manage stranger anxiety calmly with empathy and compassion so that your baby adapts quickly. Your panic and disappointment can lead to prolonged stranger anxiety which can lead to delays in your baby developing social, emotional, and academic skills.
Dr. Debmita Dutta MBBS, MD
Dr. Debmita Dutta MBBS, MD is a practicing doctor, a parenting consultant, and the founder of WPA whatparentsask.com She conducts online and offline workshops on parenting for schools and corporate organisations. She also conducts online and offline prenatal and infant care classes. She is a well-known thought-leader in parenting and an expert on play, learning and eating habits. Her books on parenting are published by Juggernaut Books and are among their most read books. She is frequently quoted in national and international publications of repute for her empathetic and compassionate approach to parenting and her application of physiology and brain science to parenting.