Stranger Anxiety in a 9-Month-Old
Dear 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!
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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