Katie's Baby Anxiety
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Frightened baby.

August 22, 2017

Stranger danger: Helping babies overcome social anxiety

At my son’s six-month check-up, his pediatrician gave us the heads up that Killian may start to exhibit stranger anxiety. At that age, our son was starting to see the difference in people’s faces faces and understand object permanence as his cognitive skills advanced.

For many babies, stranger anxiety can also begin when they gain more independence through crawling. They are able to move away from their parents or the people they know, but an apprehension of strangers keeps them from veering into dangerous territory.

Every child is different and will experience this stage in his or her own way at his or her own time. It is up to us as parents and caregivers to follow our babys' signs and help them feel safe, secure and comfortable.

Killian is a really friendly baby but like all little ones, he has moments when he does not want to be held by someone he does not know or cries in the face of a stranger who says hello. As his mother, I want to encourage his sociability, but I never force him to interact if he becomes upset.

This can be tricky when we are around friends and relatives that he does not know. These people love him so much and are excited to cuddle and kiss him. But frequently in these moments my son reacts with tears. He simply does not know the person hugging and smiling and kissing and talking to him; the new intimacy throws him off and he cries for his Mama and Daddy. The friends or relatives on the receiving end of his tears can be disappointed because it seems like our son does not like them. Of course that is not the case. He simply does not know them yet.

I always follow my son’s lead. If he does not want to be held by, play with or be fed by someone who is a stranger to him, I intercede on his behalf because my baby boy’s feelings are most important to me. I am not going to torture him by forcing him to stay in a relative’s arms when he is wailing.

But I also try to show him that there is nothing to be upset about. I stay close, hug the person who is hugging him and say things like, “This is your aunt, Killian. We love our aunt! She is so nice. Let’s play with her!”

If he sees me comfortable, relaxed and happy my disposition can encourage him to feel the same. For my son, playing together and bringing some toys into the equation can really help in our moments of stranger anxiety. I always stay close to join in on the fun and provide encouraging words and smiles.

Most adults understand that little ones can be apprehensive of people they do not know or only see sporadically. It takes time to build a relationship with a baby. At 10 months old, I need to listen to my son’s preferences to ensure his well-being.

Of course I do not want my baby boy to be antisocial or grow up refusing to hang out with someone who is not his Mama and Daddy. So I am also mindful of helping him to move past this stage. Based on the advice of my son’s pediatrician and my independent research, here are some tips for helping a baby with stranger anxiety.

DON'T FORCE IT

Stranger anxiety is a normal stage that nearly all babies and youngsters experience to different degrees at varying times during childhood.

Do not force your child to be a social butterfly if he is in distress. Feeling scared can be traumatic for a child. Parents are supposed to provide calm security, not increase anxiety and apprehension. Always put your little one’s feelings first. If he screams in the face of his grandparent or your boss, cries to escape the arms of his uncle or your brother, take him and console him. Do not worry that coddling your little one could make this worse.

“Children who are repeatedly, regularly and consistently picked up and soothed when they cry end up crying less,” says Dr. Jean Wittenberg of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “And the less anxiety-provoking experiences babies have, the sooner they develop a solid sense of security.”

PRACTICE TIME APART

For many parents, it is necessary for their baby to develop a relationship with other people.

Most parents rely on caregivers, grandparents, friends and daycare centers to step in while they have to be away from their children for work or otherwise. Babies will develop healthy relationships with people other than their parents given the right approach and a little bit of time.

Introduce your baby to new people and places as soon as possible to ensure his comfort when it is time to drop him off and say goodbye. My son has known my parents since the day he was born and has spent probably half of his life in their company, plus many nights in their home. Because of this, when I need them to babysit Killian does not cry – he smiles! He is as comfortable with my parents as he is with his own parents.

This is so good for Killian and great for my husband and me, too.

SET EXPECTATIONS

If your child is in this stage, let people know ahead of time to manage the expectations of their interactions.

This is especially important when your child is going to meet or be visited by people he does not know, especially relatives and close friends who are excited to squeeze your little sweetie. Because Killian smiles at pretty much everyone we come in contact with, my husband and I were surprised by his reaction when we visited a large group of relatives a few months ago, many he was meeting for the first time.

Surrounded by many excited, loving people he spent the first day in tears. It was overwhelming for my baby to be in a new place with new faces, all of whom wanted to hug and kiss him. Now that we know he has some stranger anxiety, we give our friends and relatives a heads up that it may take him some time to warm up to them.

YOUR MOOD MATTERS

In his moments of stranger anxiety, Killian always looks to his parents for guidance and comfort. I smile to show him that everything is OK. I hug and kiss the person we are interacting with and explain to Killian who they are and why they are important to him, Mama and Daddy.

Experts say most children will feel more relaxed if they see that their parents and caregivers are relaxed.

Staying present and engaged in the interaction also provides security to your child. If you get riled up because of your child’s stranger anxiety it could make it worse. In these moments, hit the pause button. Take your child out of the situation and find a quiet place for the two of you to regroup and relax.

Every stage of your child’s life is special and wonderful, but also full of new experiences and sometimes difficult transitions. If your baby is going through stranger anxiety try these tips and talk to your pediatrician. Share with other parents and above all else, have patience with yourself and your child.


Did/does your baby have stranger anxiety? What age did it start and how are you helping he/she through this stage? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or Tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.