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Normal Stranger Anxiety—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My baby is generally happy. She gets to see a few people regularly, such as my parents, but mostly spends time with me and her dad.

We both work from home. Today she had a weird reaction to an old friend of mine that she hadn’t met before. Initially she seemed interested in a new face, but when my friend picked the baby up she fussed and started reaching for me. Is this the “Stranger Anxiety” I’ve heard about? She’s seven-months-old.

New at This

Dear NaT,

Yes, it sounds like it is. Stranger Anxiety is a normal expression of recognizing the difference between well-known and unknown people. It shows that your baby feels that you (and probably Dad) are part of her. The more time she spends with her grandparents, the more that they too are perceived as part of what makes her the happy baby that she is.

Around six months or so, a baby reacts negatively to “strangers” because she has come to expect certain facial features, i.e., those of her well-known caregivers, as “normal” when she is being held, being bathed, being changed, or eating, etc. In child development terms, up until this point she doesn’t differentiate between her body and its needs, and the bodies and especially the faces of the people who help to meet those needs. It’s as if the meeting of her needs – and any arms, legs, or other body part of the caregiver that operates to meet those needs – is simply part of the structure of what she thinks of as herself. She knows what the faces on those bodies are supposed to look like and your friend’s face isn’t it.

Familiar sounds (your voice, mostly) and smells, also add to her assurance that her basic needs will be fulfilled because this part of herself – you – is present.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you look in the bathroom mirror one morning so you can brush your teen and someone else’s image is looking back at you, holding your toothbrush. Yikes!

This normal phase of Stranger Anxiety, like other normal phases, will pass in due time. Generally it takes a few months by which time your baby will have formed new ideas about “Me” and “Not Me” with such activities as peek-a-boo, your blowing raspberries on her tummy, and successfully getting her own toes in her mouth. The notion that her body is separate from yours also helps her to get better and better at communicating her needs with facial gestures and cries directed toward you and any other regular caregivers. During this process, she will probably learn to “fake cry” to get the reaction she needs rather than expending the emotional energy of getting all worked up just to get you to feed her or change her. Smart baby. This is a wonderful example of evidence of attachment – her awareness that her needs are met by someone else, namely you (and Dad, of course).

For now, respect her apprehension of any faces she hasn’t catalogued as an integral part of herself. There will be plenty of time later for her to branch out socially.

Dr. Debbie


Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

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