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Stranger Anxiety in a 9-Month-Old

Apr06

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear all-mighty Amalah,

My adorable 9-month-old baby is fantastic! A great baby from the get go. Sleeps well, eats well, no health problems… but she has terrible stranger anxiety. It’s been going on since she was about 4 months old (EARLY for this, I know!). She has four Grandpas and she screams in the face of all of them. It makes my husband and I feel horrible. We had a family dinner last Sunday and I went home in tears. I know she’s not doing it on purpose, but it makes people feel bad when she screams in, what seems like terror at them. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this? It’s going on 5 months that her grandpas can’t hold her. She doesn’t seem to have any problems with women (except my sister, weird).

I feel like people aren’t seeing my true baby. She’s happy and joyful when we’re at home, in the grocery store, on a walk, etc. Strangely enough, it seems to be only the older guys that bother her. She has no problem with her daddy, the coffee shop guy, etc. Any help you can offer will be much appreciated!

L

First, and I hope you already know this, but your daughter’s behavior is completely, 100% NORMAL. Normal, normal, normal. Stranger anxiety can crop up in babies as early as THREE months, but does seem to spike or at least reach a boiling point right at her current age. (Nine months old is often marked by a big growth spurt…AFTER you’ve dealt with a frustrating wave of sleep and eating regressions, increased clinginess, general fussbudgetry.)

Here’s the thing, though, about stranger anxiety, at least in regards to young babies: There’s not that much you can do to MAKE it go away. It WILL go away, in time. (Usually around 12 months old.) But there’s a lot you can do to MAKE IT WORSE — like say, the suggestion to just “leave her at Grandpa’s house and let her cry until she’s over it” or constantly pushing/encouraging/forcing her to let the source of her fears hug/hold/kiss her.

Don’t do either of those things, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re making it worse by NOT forcing her to separate from you and your husband, or holding her the whole time she’s at your parents’ house and comforting her through the anxiety. The way through the anxiety is to consistently make her feel safe and secure. And if clinging to you and giving Grandpa the cold shoulder is what it takes right now, well…that’s what it takes right now. Sorry, Grandpa, please understand this is nothing personal, it’s just a phase (albeit a longish one) and she WILL get over it. But constantly approaching her, reaching for her, “forcing” affection on her is going to do nothing but extend it.

However, it’s important that YOU continue to treat Grandpa how you’d like her to treat him — greet him with big hugs, kisses, etc. (While your husband or other acceptable person holds your daughter from a safe distance.) Let her see that YOU, a person she trusts and gains comfort from, accepts the stranger in question. Then stay in her view/comfort zone the whole time, hold her close when she seems particularly upset, and gently remind the spurned adults to give her space and yes, more time. Probably only a couple months more, swearsies.

At home, make a photo album for her and “read” it in place of a bedtime story. We always used the rubbery “Who Loves Baby?” one that I feel like every baby supply store in the world sells. “Who loves baby? Mama! Dada! Grandma! GRANDPA! Uncle Al with the bald head or beard or whatever it is that triggers the older-man fear!” If she seems particularly attune to visuals and pictures in books, go through some magazines or catalogs and cut out pictures and ads of happy grandpa-types (particularly those interacting with babies or children) and make her a kind of rudimentary social story about grandpas and who they are and why we love them. (Refrain from stuff like “there’s nothing to be afraid of!” or words that dismiss her fear — even at this age, it’s REAL to her, and she knows it.) (And of course, if the photos freak her out, drop it. Maybe try illustrated picture books about grandparents instead, substituting whatever you call her grandparents for the names in the text.)

But really, this too shall pass. She IS a happy, joyful, secure baby. She’s just going through a very normal (even though it feels extended) patch of stranger anxiety, and hey! At least it’s only poor Grandpa getting the brunt of it, and not like, every adult in the world who is not Mommy or Daddy. Which also happens! And is also totally normal! Keep her close and comforted, allow her to explore the world and separate from you at her own pace, and trust me, the confidence will come, as will many, many months of completely fearless toddlerhood. (And many, many exchanges in the grocery store line where she gleefully says “GRANDPA!” to a slightly older man who clearly does not think of himself as grandpa-aged, and you can see the coming mid-life crisis all over his face while you’re like, yeeeeah, awkward.)

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If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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24 Responses to “Stranger Anxiety in a 9-Month-Old”

  1. Karen Apr 06 at 10:18 am Reply Reply

    My mom, grandma, visited my daughter every week since she was born to establish familiarity. When our daughter was around 13 months, we left our daughter with grandma and grandpa for the weekend and everyone had a great time. My parents visited the very.next.weekend and my daughter screamed and wailed and generally spazzed the entire visit anytime my mom attempted to come near her. Fortunately, my mom dropped it and just like Amy said, shortly thereafter everything was fine. Grandpa took a bit longer because my daughter also had old man anxiety. The pictures are a great idea too and 9 months is not too young to start that.

  2. cagey Apr 06 at 10:56 am Reply Reply

    My 8 month old niece is just going through this, too.  And yes, we ALL felt horrible when she screamed as my dad went to pick her up – the guy who usually makes her shriek with joy, not fright.  And this happened at an extended family gathering with folks we don’t see very often.

    I tried to lighten the mood and we all just laughed, shrugged our shoulders and stressed over and over that it is just stranger anxiety.

    Both of my kids went through this around the same age.  Also – we went through this again at around 18 months.   

  3. THW Apr 06 at 10:58 am Reply Reply

    If I may suggest, the key thing to remember is this – your baby is too young to understand, reason, control her reactions to others, but the adults in her life can control themselves, and their OWN behaviour.

    As long as everyone keeps this in mind, then parents won’t worry about the perfectly normal behaviours of their children at any age, and the rest of us will react appropriately.

  4. Samantha Apr 06 at 11:26 am Reply Reply

    Our daughter is 2.5 now, so I can’t recall exactly what age she got over this. I think it was more like 15 months, but before that she would not let my husband’s father near her. And, yes, the constant attempts by him to gain her favor just made it worse. One day he corralled her in the hall and asked me to go away so that she’d “have” to interact with him. I stood my ground and she ran past him and clung on to me. He was pretty mad about it as I recall. Anyway, just like Amy said, she grew out of it completely on her own, and now her “Pa” is one of her favorite people. She’d hang out with him to the exclusion of anyone else now if we let her.

  5. Olivia Apr 06 at 11:50 am Reply Reply

    Mine went thru this, too. It was probably around 15 months that it got better, though she is still shy (2 yrs now) and takes a while to warm up around people she doesn’t see often. She just needs time and space to asses the situation and then she become her usual goofy, happy self.

  6. Jeannie Apr 06 at 12:12 pm Reply Reply

    Both mine were like this and it made some grandparents uncomfortable — my MIL and my father especially. But my son totally grew out of it in time and is now super social (my daughter’s 11 months and in the thick of it still). I totally agree — don’t push it, and don’t let anyone else push you or your kid either. Any time I’ve caved my kids cry and no one’s happy. Especially me. Give your LO time to warm up … My kids always do, even tho it’s on their schedule.

    Best response was from my sister, who, when I apologized for my daughter’s reticence, said cheerfully “it’s ok. She’ll love me when she’s three!”. And it’s true. They’ll grow out of it.

  7. Christen Apr 06 at 12:42 pm Reply Reply

    I had MAJOR male-related anxiety as a toddler, according to family legend. Only my dad and maternal grandpa were allowed near me. Family friends, uncles, random dudes at the grocery store sent me FLYING into my mom’s arms, where I buried my face. It was a weird, slightly uncomfortable phase, but my dad said it seemed to mellow once ALL the adults mellowed. That included my parents, and the slighted family members/friends. Rather than try to get in my face and joke and be gregarious, they let me be and I came around. Eventually my individual relationships with these people improved, and no one is scarred.

  8. Jessica Apr 06 at 12:49 pm Reply Reply

    My son was the first grandchild on my side of the family. My mother was SO EXCITED for him to be born. And…. he screamed every single time he went near her starting at 3 months. It lasted until probably oh, 7 months or so, and was awesomely hilarious but it definitely hurt her feelings, even though she KNEW he was not doing it on purpose. He was scared of their house even! He would cry the second we got there, unless I was holding him. So, I held him. A lot. ’twas okay by me :)

    Now? At 18 months I think he would like to move there, to the land where he is given unlimited marshmallows and juice and not forced to take baths or naps, ever.

    I agree with the books. We made one on Snapfish that says, “Who loves baby…” and put everyone’s picture in it with their names, “Aunt Becca loves ….” “Grandma loves …. ” it’s super simple and our son LOVES it and I think it has helped him identify people (I have 6 brothers and sisters, so the kid has a lot of aunts & uncles!).

  9. Kristen Apr 06 at 12:52 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks Amy! I appreciate the info. I talked to my dad about this the other night, and he said it makes him sad that he can’t hold his beautiful granddaughter, but he knows it will pass. It’s more my hang up at this point, than anyone else’s.
    I know, all too soon, she’ll want nothing to do with me, so I should appreciate the times when she reaches out to me for comfort.

  10. Jan Apr 06 at 1:24 pm Reply Reply

    We’ve been there too… my first son was a definite mommy’s boy until he was >2 years old. He didn’t even want his dad to pick him up if he wasn’t in the mood, never mind the extended family. They got used to it though, and they were great about not forcing the issue. Once it was clear that he wasn’t a social butterfly, the grandmas & grandpas learned how to wait for him to come to them, and not try to hug/hold if he wasn’t in the mood. Given that, they got along fine–he just needed a good long time to warm up to any new situation. Baby #2 was a whole different story… aside from a very short period of stranger anxiety, he was pretty content to be passed around like a football at family events. :)

  11. Kira Apr 06 at 1:31 pm Reply Reply

    Agree with everything.  Also, we noticed with my daughter, once she got mobile, that if she was given the opportunity to approach at her own pace (as opposed to, say being strapped in a high chair or a stroller).  So, once your daughter has a little mobility, it might help her to be able to “check out” the strangers on her own.

  12. sara m Apr 06 at 1:34 pm Reply Reply

    We taught our daughter (and our family members) to give high fives instead of asking for or giving kisses right away. That way she can stay in her own physical space and choose and control the interaction. She has warmed up to almost everyone and chooses to give kisses or hugs out freely now. My brother (who is quite tall) and a friend (who has long hair and wears funny hats) still aren’t her favorites, but she’ll high five them every time.

  13. Eliza Apr 06 at 2:41 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter is one of those children who Amalah referenced who does not like any adults to hold her except for Mom and Dad.  And this, believe it or not, has been true since she was one week old.  My Mom was the first person to visit and my daughter cried whenever she tried to hold her.  This happened with everyone who came to visit- grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends.  She was simply a Mommy-and-Daddy-only baby.  She is now 16 months old and has finally started warming to other adults.  There have been tense moments with our families, and we had acquaintances tell us that we were only making her “behavior” worse by holding her, but we always responded to our daughter’s needs.  Now she smiles and laughs at strangers, and sometimes she will even walk up to them and interact with them on her own.  It takes time for her feel comfortable in new places and around new people.  And our families and friends know that about her now.  As do we.  After all, much of what we are doing as parents- especially in the first year- is simply getting to know our children, and that includes what makes them feel safe.  And to them, “safe” will feel different at nine-months than it does at one year, two years, or even ten years. 

  14. HereWeGoAJen Apr 06 at 3:24 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter is two now (and getting rapidly closer to two and a half) and she still has stranger anxiety. Luckily, it is now mostly just men (instead of everyone), but it is a bit of a pain. Things that help for us are to call men someone’s daddy, like ‘this is Isaac’s daddy” instead of by their name. And it took her ten months (of periodic visits) before she liked my husband’s college roommate and that only happened when he gave her a lollipop at each new visit. (Now she loves him.)

    The other thing that helps a LOT is when people don’t push it. If they keep trying to make her like them, it takes much longer than when they just back off and let her be. (My father in law does not back off, my brother in law does and she likes Uncle Mikey ever so much better.)

    But she still won’t go near Santa.

  15. Bear Apr 06 at 3:51 pm Reply Reply

    They are all so very like they are, hey? Our dude was always comfortable being held, passed around, with people of all sorts. Never a peep out of him about it. Loves new people, loves new places. Old men? Beards? Biker guys with nose rings and tattoos? Fantastic. Super happy. Beards are great to tug on.

    However, he /hates/ having his diaper changed, and always has; he thrashes and wails as though we were cutting snippets off him with a rusty shears. It’s quite a trick to keep him still enough to do it.

    Oh, well. At least now I know how to get beet-dyed poop out of bluejeans. 

  16. Wallydraigle Apr 06 at 5:17 pm Reply Reply

    “Excruciatingly shy” does not even begin to describe my older daughter. She was suddenly terrified of EVERYONE at 8 months, and it didn’t let up until about four months ago. One day, she just suddenly became Miss Social Butterfly (she also started eating actual food that we put in front of her, even the weird stuff, and not freaking out if she got a little food on her fingers). Then we moved. And she regressed six months. But! She’s done it once, so I know she can do it again.
    .
    Anyway, all that to say that no, there’s nothing you can do about it. I know that the more I hold her and reassure her that I love her, and I’m right here–especially in public–, the more comfortable she becomes. The next person who tells me she’s so shy because she gets “coddled” so much is going to get punched in the face. We constantly walk this line between challenging her and traumatizing her; if we push her two far, it’s ten steps back. So no, we’re not coddling her, and no, we don’t have much control over it, other than not making it worse.
    .
    She went through a phase where she emphatically preferred her father. I was pregnant and hormonal, and it seems like I spent every evening after her bedtime sobbing in the bathroom for ten minutes because she didn’t even want to hug me goodnight. I knew how irrational this was, but it still hurt. However, I think that if I hadn’t known that this was just a phase, that it truly wasn’t personal, it would have been a lot worse. Can you give the grandpas some information on babies and stranger anxiety? It may still hurt their feelings, but maybe it will help them process it and realize it’s not personal.

  17. wallydraigle Apr 06 at 5:19 pm Reply Reply

    My first paragraph assumes everyone knows how old my kid is, which doesn’t even make any sense. She’s now exactly 2 1/2. So this phase can last a while. Bad news, I know, but I wish I’d been prepared for that ahead of time and not been holding out such high hopes for 12 months, 14 months… 18 months? Please? Come on, kid! Et cetera.

  18. crabbyappleseed Apr 06 at 6:04 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter is nearly two and a half. I am, um, still waiting for her to stop being terrified of my father. She’s marginally less terrified by my mom, but still cries and clings to me rather than stay with her. it is utterly mortifying (not to mention the way it rips my heart out when my dad comments that she doesn’t seem to like him very much). They were her babysitters for the first two months after I went back to work, and have been heavily involved in her life since then, so I really have no idea what it’s about. My dad is older, so he can’t get on the floor and play with her, which might be part of it, but absolutely nothing I do makes it better. And the worst part is, every time we get in the car, she asks if we can please go to Pop-Pop’s house, she points at the garden and says, “Pop-Pop’s garden!!” (because he comes over and helps me with it), points at every older man she sees and says, “Pop-Pop!!!” but somehow, that does not translate to enjoying his company or, you know, not being terrified of him.

    I’m hoping it passes soon….

  19. Danielle Apr 07 at 12:21 am Reply Reply

    Our daughter has the same kind of anxiety except directed at my mother and all other women except her primary caregiver at daycare. (Funny how Penny has moved up each time my daughter moved up!) She’s just turning two and it’s getting better. I feel bad for my mom who adores her but we just comfort her (grandma and baby). 
    It sucks but it does go away. My first did not do this at all and I was all tweaked when it happened. I found it more aggravating that when we got to a get together where everyone could finally give me some help. She couldn’t be pryed off of me.
    Give it time, show pictures. E loves to talk to grandma on the phone or over skype. Maybe that kind of interaction without being physically close could help.

  20. Name (required) Apr 07 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

    Hi, Amy? Can you come mediate between me and my in-laws?

    My own father was the one who first told me about this normal phase of kids’ development, so my parents had no problem when my year-old daughter preferred (and continues to prefer) me over them. However the in-laws clearly missed this vital lesson, and are pushing me constantly to leave the baby with them “so she’ll get used to” being at their house without me around.

    I’m actually printing this out to bring to their house this evening. And tomorrow I’ll be ordering a photo book with all the relatives’ faces. Excellent suggestion!

  21. Wallydraigle Apr 07 at 4:43 pm Reply Reply

    Ooh, yes, Skype! My daughter does great on Skype. She’s not much of a conversationalist, but she definitely expresses her delight over seeing the person on the other end. I think a lot of the time, she likes the idea of other people, and she likes the companionship, but she finds their physical presence threatening. Even the people she obviously adores, it will take her several months to a year to let them pick her up even briefly.
    .
    Do the grandpas try to hold your kid or touch him at all? I know a lot of people who REALLY want my daughter to like her try to do all the things that kids normally like: nose-bopping, tickling the ribs, etc. But until she warms up, any and all physical affection sends her from “apprehensive” into “DANGER DANGER BABY EATER DANGER.”

  22. professormama Apr 08 at 12:10 am Reply Reply

    My daughter was terrified of blonde haired people.
    Weird right?
    Everyone in our family has dark hair, and any woman with black hair, that looked a little like me was her favorite new friend.
    But she grew out of it, we didn’t do anything it just took time.  

    It might help to have the “scary weird people” offer her some of her favorite snacks, this works better as they get older.

    Come to think of it she also was terrified of dogs, like a dog on the other side of the street would make her burst in to tears, now at almost 2 she LOVES dogs and wants to lick their faces, again we didn’t do anything, she just changed her mind.

  23. polarbee Apr 14 at 4:54 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter would scream in terror at that age whenever she saw a man with a beard. 

  24. Katie Apr 04 at 12:36 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for this. Our daughter has hated strangers from 3 weeks on. (She is now 8 months….) My folks have both passed away – and we only see my husband’s parents about once a month. So it really is just momma and dada all the time. Her grandparents couldn’t have been more excited when our daughter was born – but I know it hurts their feelings to have her wailing within a second of a smirk or a smile. We have just sold our house – and so we’re in the mix of bank meetings and lawyers………she charms the pants off of those people…………… I don’t get it. Thanks for this article. I’m crying my eyes out in understand and a bit of relief. This is a hard, hard, hard job when you know you can’t help (or control!!!) situations.

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