Can you explain why my infant daughter started screaming when my great-aunt dropped by last weekend and wanted to hold her? In the past she's always had a ready smile for everyone, but on this occasion she simply went ballistic! What do you think has happened?
It sounds like you're dealing with a normal case of stranger anxiety. As early as six months of age, a new phase develops in which a child who formerly seemed comfortable around everyone will begin showing anxiety among unfamiliar people. The approach of someone new or someone she hasn't seen for a while will provoke a wide-eyed stare, usually followed by wailing and clinging to you for protection.
Since fear of strangers is virtually universal as the first birthday approaches and usually continues well into the second year, you and your great-aunt should relax about it. In fact, a simple strategy may help her and your baby get acquainted.
First, your great-aunt (or any other strange visitor, for that matter) shouldn't try to touch, kiss or hold the baby right away. In fact, even a direct return of your baby's stare may set off a healthy cry. Instead, you and your great-aunt should chat as if nothing else is going on. Let the baby see that this is someone you are comfortable with. Give her time to get used to the sight of this new person in your home. After a while, some simple exchanges of looks, touches and eventually play will begin naturally as your great-aunt becomes one of the gang.
The flip side of stranger anxiety is separation anxiety – an increased unwillingness to be separated from the main caregiver (usually, but not always, Mom). Your baby may begin to cry when you simply step into another room for a moment or put her into her crib for a nap. If and when she's about to be left with a relative or a sitter, the crying may escalate into a wailing and clinging session of spectacular proportions.
You can deal with this situation by avoiding extremes. Some parents will do anything to prevent even one minute of crying or unhappiness in their child's life. Others – generally those who have an extremely controlling parenting style – may be determined to ignore separation anxiety altogether. Both approaches stake out a path of least resistance that may seem to work for now but may produce other long-term problems down the road.
Separation anxiety, like stranger anxiety, is a normal phase of child development. It's virtually inevitable, but you can buffer its impact by adopting a strategy similar to the one described above for introducing your child to your great-aunt. For example, if a sitter is coming to your home, have her arrive half an hour early so she can get acquainted with the baby in an unhurried manner. If, on the other hand, you're dropping your child off at a place that is new to her, plan to stick around for a while and allow your baby time to explore and get accustomed to the new environment. When it's time for you to depart, don't stoke the emotional fires with a dramatic farewell. Let your baby get involved in an activity with the caregiver, say a short and sweet good-bye and leave.
The separation process will be much more unpleasant if your baby is tired or hungry. If you can schedule your departure after a nap or a meal, it may go more smoothly. And there is no harm in finding a so-called "transitional object," such as a small toy or "security" blanket, to serve as a comforting reminder of things that are familiar to her.
If you need help implementing any of these ideas, don't hesitate to give Focus on the Family's Counseling department a call.
Common Childhood Fears