Babies are able to distinguish their mothers from strangers starting in the first few days of life. Although babies have an innate preference for their close caregivers, they don’t necessarily exhibit any negative reactions around others until they are between the ages of 3 and 6 months. At this time, babies have an increased awareness of strangers and may feel anxious when they are separated from their parents. As distressing as this may be for babies and their loved ones, the phase is temporary.
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What Lies Beneath
Stranger anxiety typically develops when babies realize that they are separate beings from the people taking care of them. Stranger anxiety also develops around the time when babies begin to comprehend something known as "object permanence." While a newborn doesn’t necessarily remember that a person or object continues to exist when it is no longer visible, a 3- to 6-month-old baby will begin to search for toys that have fallen and appreciate games such as peek-a-boo. This developmental phase also allows babies to draw a mental image of their parents when they aren’t around, which heightens their sadness and anxiety when they are being cared for by someone else or when they are left alone in a room.
The majority of babies and toddlers go through one or more normal phases of stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, or both. However, some school-aged children and teens may have fears that eventually develop into separation anxiety disorder (SAD), which causes them to fear leaving their primary caregivers' sides for any reason.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Babies with stranger anxiety will cry, hide or act quiet when they are approached by faces that they perceive to be unfamiliar. Babies and toddlers may also experience stranger anxiety around people they have seen a few times in the past, since their memories are still developing.
According to the Dr. Greene pediatric website, separation and stranger anxiety generally occur around the second half of the first year and last for approximately 2 to 4 months. A second peak may occur in the second portion of the next year, around the time toddlers begin to develop language skills and have a strong desire to communicate with their parents, who can easily understand them. This phase may end around the time when a toddlers' language skills improve. Sometimes the two phases blend together into an anxiety phase that lasts 8 months or more.
Helping Baby Cope
Babies with stranger anxiety may feel less frightened if their parents offer a soothing voice or gentle touch during encounters with strangers Toddlers with stranger anxiety may feel less overwhelmed if they are given some time and space. For example, parents may ask house visitors to ignore their child for 20 to 30 minutes until their child warms up enough to approach strangers on his own.