Raquel Anderson has 14 years of experience as a mental health provider in institutional and private practice. Aside from her private practice, she is an advisory board member for the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County’s Be Merge Initiative.
Around 4-5 months of age, your little one may start to ease out of the normal easiness of letting anyone hold him or her and start developing anxiety when it comes to strangers. Is it normal? Bundoo Behavioral Health Specialist Raquel Anderson discusses how you can help your child deal with stranger anxiety.
Bundoo: What is stranger anxiety, and is it normal or does it signify any deeper socialization issues?
Raquel Anderson: At first babies will be seemingly OK with anyone who wants to hold them. However, at about 21 weeks of age ease typically starts to disappear and stranger anxiety sets in. Stranger anxiety is normal in the development of infants. This occurs as babies are learning the difference between a stranger and his or her parents. This is a sign of healthy emotional development in infants. This is not the sign of any socialization issues. In fact, having stranger anxiety is a sign they are developing appropriate attachment to their most trusted caregivers. Basically, they are saying they know this is not mommy or daddy, and they simply prefer to be with you.
Some parents are embarrassed by stranger anxiety. What techniques can a parent use to help his or her baby deal better with strangers?
It is understandable to be embarrassed when your baby throws a fit anytime anyone except mom or dad tries to hold him or her. Try not to take this reaction to strangers personally. There are a few strategies you can do to ease this anxiety for both your baby and others. First of all, your baby is watching and learning from you. When you are friendly and at ease with those around you, they will be too. If a sitter or other caregiver is needed, have them come early to give your baby a chance to warm up to this new individual. Maybe play together before you need to leave, but exit quickly and preferably while the baby is distracted. Don’t give up. Your baby will pass through this stage.
What advice would you give a parent when someone, like a friend, approaches and says, “Oh, can I hold your baby?!” What can the parent say to that person to help reduce the possibility of stranger anxiety?
If someone wishes to hold your baby or offers to help, it’s perfectly fine to allow it. All the little experiences and opportunities to interact with others help your baby socialize with others and help them build confidence when around strangers. Explain that your baby is going through a phase of stranger anxiety and that you will be nearby. Encourage them by letting them know it is not personal to them. If or when your friend is uncomfortable, they will likely let you know. Celebrate the time, however long it is, that your baby is with someone else.
If a baby has anxiety around strangers, does it signify any longer-term issues? How long does this phase normally last?
Stranger anxiety is a normal part of your baby’s development. Just like all stages there is great variability at this stage. On average you can expect this stage will last about two to four months. Not only will the length of time vary from baby to baby, but the intensity of the anxiety will vary too. Therefore, try not to compare one child to another. Even if this is not your first child, the experience with this one will likely be very different than others. Sometimes this stranger anxiety remains until language is more fully developed or at least understood by the other caregivers.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019