Helping Your Baby Cope with Stranger Anxiety

If your baby cries and screams around unfamiliar faces, he may have stranger anxiety. Learn how to cope with this common newborn condition.

Most babies get cranky around people they don't recognize, whether it's a complete stranger or a grandparent who lives in another state. This reaction is completely normal and signals intellectual development. "It means that your child is able to tell the difference between people she's close to and people she doesn't know," says Lu Hanessian, author of Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the New Road of Motherhood.

That's all well and good, but if you're a working parent—or if you go on an occasional date—your baby's crying will leave you frustrated. "You don't want to completely put your life on hold," says Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year. Nor do you have to. Read on to learn more about stranger anxiety and strategies to soothe the fear.

What Causes Stranger Anxiety?

In the first months of life, it's almost as if your child has no short-term memory. "If you take a toy away, it no longer exists to the child; or if Mommy or Daddy leaves, she or he is forgotten," explains Dr. Brown. That's why many infants have little trouble going from the arms of one adult to another.

Eventually, though, your baby turns an intellectual corner. "As a baby's brain matures, she realizes that things still exist even though she can't see them anymore"—and that includes Mom and Dad, says Dr. Brown. Babies begin to understand this phenomenon, called object permanence, around 8 or 9 months.

You'll notice that your little one starts to miss your warmth, comfort, and familiarity when you aren't in the room. He'll also wonder what will happen when you aren't around. These feelings trigger the development of two perfectly normal fears: a fear of strangers and a fear of being separated from you.

Tips for Dealing with Stranger Anxiety

It's natural for friends and family to scoop Baby up and make him the center of attention, but this can be overwhelming for her, says Lisa M. Asta, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Far from something to be concerned about, stranger anxiety can be a sign of a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver, which is essential to emotional development.

To soothe your baby's fears and minimize bad reactions, gently introduce her to new people. If she protests a friendly advance from an outsider, politely explain that she needs time to warm up. Let the person speak to your baby while she's secure on your lap or in your arms. She'll learn from your voice and happy demeanor that this new person is safe.

Be patient if the process takes time. Like adults, infants have their own temperaments and levels of sociability. Let her make friends at her own pace, and never force her to go to someone if she doesn't want to.

Making Your Baby Comfortable with New Caregivers

Have a new babysitter or caregiver arrive at least 30 minutes before you leave so that your child can get comfortable with her. "It's well worth the extra money," says Janet Nelson, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Montclair, New Jersey. If you're going back to work, have your caregiver begin a couple of weeks early. That way, you can leave your baby for short stretches and slowly build up for the big day. Make sure your sitter knows your child's favorite toys, snacks, and diversions, as well as the best soothing techniques.

And don't sneak out of the house. "If your baby turns around and you're not there, he'll feel he can't trust you, which will only increase his anxiety," says Dr. Nelson. If you're desperate to sidestep a tearful farewell, a change of scenery might be helpful: Have your sitter and the baby leave the house with you, then say goodbye when you reach the corner.

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