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Ask Dr. Sears: Fear Of Strangers

For the past three months, my 6 ½-month-old daughter has had severe stranger anxiety and been terrified of everyone except my husband and me. Should we be worried?

A.
Around the age of 4 months, babies begin studying people in an attempt to discern, among other things, who can be trusted. The degree of anxiety a baby experiences around a stranger often reflects that baby's temperament. Some mellow babies will go to anybody; others who are more discerning become anxious in the presence of a stranger. This seems to be the case with your child -- she's very sensitive.

My wife, Martha, and I learned many babies ago that infants usually do what they do for developmental reasons. This is certainly true of both stranger and separation anxiety. I believe that these are normal, healthy, protective mechanisms: During this stage, the ability to crawl flourishes, allowing a baby to wander away from caregivers and toward persons and places that may not be safe. Stranger and separation anxiety keep a baby safely, securely attached to familiar caregivers. It's as if an infant's body says, "Crawl away and go to anybody," but her mind says, "Not so fast." Here's how you can help your baby to turn strangers into friends:

Be her social chairman: Your baby sizes up strangers by your reaction to them, so if you're anxious, she's likely to be too. If you're worried how she'll react to somebody, she'll sense it and mimic you.

Prepare strangers ahead of time: You know your daughter's uncomfortable around people she hasn't met, so, whenever possible, you should alert them about it ahead of time. Also, let them know how she'll react if they barge into her personal space. Inform significant strangers (for example, grandparents and good friends) not to be too aggressive with her and that they should let you set the stage; eventually, baby will usually go to them. Encourage them to play with one of her favorite things by themselves or bring an unfamiliar toy that will engage her interest -- she may warm up to a person who has a toy she wants.

Act as a buffer: An important strategy is moving gradually from the familiar to the unfamiliar. If your daughter sees someone approaching on the street -- and you know him but she doesn't -- let her see you quickly smile and then greet him from a distance. If at all possible, have a cheerful discussion (keep that grin on your face) with him while preserving that distance. In your baby's cautious mind, if the stranger is OK with you, the stranger is OK with her.

For now, though, the fact that your daughter trusts you and feels secure in your arms should be taken as a compliment. In time, soothing and reassuring expressions from you, her most trusted caregivers, will sink in. Above all, don't fear that stranger anxiety means she's spoiled or too attached, or that she'll never become independent. These worries are unfounded. Caution around unfamiliar people and a close attachment to her primary caregivers are some of the healthiest traits a growing child can have.

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