When babies are born, they are immediately thrust into an unfamiliar world. Having spent nine comfortable months tucked away in mummy's lovely warm tummy, they are understandably enough not so keen on the outside world. It might look interesting but it involves a lot of new challenges and learning. One of the most crucial developmental challenges for children is that of becoming an individual who is effectively able to adapt to their surrounds with a distinct personality and an ability to build meaningful relationships. The whole process lasts several years, but it starts at birth and it is vital to take it one step and one day at a time.
For the first three months of life, children have no self-awareness; they do not realise that they are different to their mothers, seeing themselves rather as an extension of her. It is no coincidence that one of the names that midwives give to the first nine months of a baby's life is “exogestation” (meaning gestation out of the mother's womb). At month four, the baby starts a long process of initial differentiation between themselves and the outside world, usually represented by the mother or another important caregiver; at this stage, they start to realise that they are different, that those around them are different to each other and that the stimuli inside and outside the family home vary immensely. This is when babies begin to explore and discover parts of their own bodies (many a parent will have videoed their child examining their own hand with rapt attention, turning it around and opening it with a gasp of amazement!) and clearly start to interact with grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives.
Children need constant stimuli in order to acquire increasing amounts of what will be known in the future as “relationship skills”, meaning the ability to interact with others in a different way, so the chance to spend time with significant adults, apart from mummy and daddy (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends), enables kid to come into contact with an array of different of approaches. This is an extremely important “material of social discovery” for them. This is why babies are extremely curious about other people up to month seven. They examine other people's faces a lot, the way their mouths look, their facial expressions and body gestures. They are gathering experience about all that they perceive as being “other”.
However, when babies get to month eight or nine, many mothers notice a form of behaviour which is typical for this time, especially those mothers who are still breastfeeding. Mothers say that babies wake up more frequently at night and seek out their mother's breast. Babies also often tend to be “scared” of strangers (not something that happened in the previous months) and want to be with their mummy and daddy most of the time. There can also be fits of crying or scenes of fussiness in front of people that they don’t know (or even that they do know but don’t see very often) and parents are taken aback because they had always considered to their child to be “quiet and well behaved”.
This may seem strange and some people believe it to be a form of regression, a going backwards in time. But actually the opposite is true. It is a normal phase of growth, a step ahead that affects various parts of the child’s behaviour. What underlies this attitude is “separation anxiety”, meaning the fear of being separated from the mother or another main caregiver.
This fear does NOT indicate in any way that you are paying less attention to your child, it is simply a stage in their DEVELOPMENT. This means that children have acquired a new skill set, and, as we mentioned above, a major achievement is their ability to distinguish between themselves and their mother, or between their family and people that they don’t know. Children are also able to discern differences because their sense of sight has fully developed by this stage. It should never be forgotten that newborns have very poor sight. It is as if there were a paper handkerchief between themselves and other people, and the furthest they can see is 20-25 cm. At eight months, their sight is much keener and they are able to perceive detail.
At this age, they also have the ability to pick up on “emotional facial expressions” and different tones in conversation (they know the difference between a scolding tone and a jokey voice) as well as being able to distinguish between a familiar and an unfamiliar voice. Another vital stage in the development process happens at age one when a child “understands” that just because their mother is not there doesn’t mean that she has vanished. It simply means that she is somewhere else and they will be able hug her again when she gets back. So, when babies scream because the mother isn’t there or because a stranger comes, it is not just a protest but a kind of cry to summon her back.
So, fear of strangers is linked to separation anxiety and will naturally disappear as children grow. This usually happens after a year without the parents having to do anything special.
How can parents help their child to overcome fear of strangers during their development process?
As we mentioned previously, everything will sort itself out naturally, but parents can take a few simple steps to help things along:
- make sure that a safe bond is created with children from a very early age so they feel secure within a positive “reliable” relationship because this will help them to cope with “separation” from significant caregivers.
- do not force children to do anything that they don't want to do, such as being picked up by someone they don't know; if they are scared, respect their feelings and give them time.
- make sure that they come into contact with other figures of trust, apart from their mother and father, from an early age onwards. As we said earlier on, this is a way to “accustom” them to new faces, feelings and behaviours, helping them to gain valuable experience for their future development.
- children “sense” whether their mother/father trusts someone or whether they don’t want their children to play with a given person, so it is important for parents to choose people that they feel comfortable around.
- give your children a “leg up. When someone who is unfamiliar to your child comes over, greet them with a smile, keep your tone of voice calm or cheerful and make sure the approach is gradual. After some initial shyness, your child might well open up and enjoy the encounter.
Be aware, parents, that fear of strangers is just a developmental stage and not a problem. Just be patient and don't hold back on cuddles, reassurance and love!