Sometime during infancy babies develop something called object permanence.
This is the concept that objects (and people) exist even when they cannot actually be seen. It is the basis of faith and trust – and also the main reason for stranger anxiety.
Parents of older infants and toddlers are usually familiar with stranger anxiety – it is the discomfort or fear felt (and usually displayed) by their children when they are approached by someone who they do not regularly see.
A baby in another room will crawl back to a caregiver, crying to get her attention.
Signs of stranger anxiety can sometimes start as early as 4 months of age.
The infant may appear wary or concerned when looking at a non-caregiver.
An older infant may look anxious, look for the caregiver and cry loudly. Toddlers may run toward, want to be picked up by the caregiver or hide behind him.
Most children have stranger anxiety by 8-9 months of age. It usually lasts until at least 2 years of age.
As disturbing as displays of stranger anxiety can be to caregivers and especially to such “strangers” as grandparents who live far away, it’s important to remember that it represents a significant cognitive milestone.
Stranger anxiety signals increasing awareness of a child’s surroundings and concept of personhood.
No doubt in earlier human hunter-gatherer groups it was an important defense mechanism for infants and children.
A “stranger” can take certain steps to help ease a child’s stranger anxiety toward her.
Approach a child slowly. Speak slowly, calmly and softly. It may help if the caregiver holds the child.
Patience is the key word, since the stranger is dealing with a normal phenomenon.
Caregivers can help the child in general by taking him to places where other people (and children) congregate, such as a park.
He should be introduced gradually to a new babysitter or daycare.
Above all, “strangers” should never take it personally when an infant or toddler shows signs of stranger anxiety around them.
This really has nothing to do with whether a child likes them or not.
I have seen stranger anxiety hurt the feelings of many relatives, even close ones, of these young children.
Stranger anxiety is a normal phenomenon. For these children, familiarity counts for more than blood.
In the end, though, children outgrow it as they learn more about the world around them.
Dr. Charles Ison is a University of Kentucky graduate who has practiced in his hometown of Lexington since 1993. He is a partner in Pediatric and Adolescent Associates.