When Babies Display “Stranger Danger”

"The mother"
“The mother” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alright guys, put on your nerd glasses for this one I’m getting into some Psych stuff today. Over the last week or so, I’ve heard a few Mamas talk about “stranger danger.” Their babies are still very young (4-9 mos) so I will clarify that the technical term we’re talking about here is “separation anxiety.” “Stranger Danger” is regarding school aged children who are learning to avoid scary situations with bad people. I’m not trying to be a smarty pants here but it’s important that I make this differentiation because when infants display this behavior it isn’t because they are afraid of the “stranger” it’s because they dislike the separation from their primary caregiver.

I’m not just making this stuff up. All that I’ve said and am about to say is based on the respected research of Child Psychologists John BowlbyMary Ainsworth, and Margaret Mahler. I’ll start with Mahler. She discovered that as infants begin to explore their world (5-10 mos) they also need reassurance from their primary caregiver (usually, but not always the mother). For example, you may have seen your baby crawl for a moment then look back to make sure you are still there before continuing to crawl. Or when someone else holds your baby, you may notice they prefer to have you in their sight. In this stage, babies are learning that they are separate from you. Separation is scary because up until this point they have been so reliant upon you for everything, including their mobility. Being able to distinguish you from others is a major milestone but it can be frightening for babies.

Let me back up a second… I’ve been talking about babies from 5-10 months of age but what about the first five months? Mahler emphasizes that during the first five months of life, babies need to develop a strong sense of trust that their needs will be met. This is why many experts advise against letting your baby “cry it out” at such a young age. If babies get the sense that their needs will not be met it makes all of the forthcoming challenges, such as overcoming separation anxiety, more difficult. If a baby has a strong sense of security in their caregiver then they feel more confident to explore their world.

Mahler didn’t just make this stuff up either. This is all backed-up by much research including a famous experiment called, “The Strange Situation,” performed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Imagine you take your baby to a new place, say daycare, you leave your babe sitting on the floor with some toys and another friendly caregiver. How do you think your kid will respond? Well, they discovered that children who had healthy relationships with their mothers would actually become distressed upon their mother’s absence. That was a healthy response. Concerning responses include if the child could not be consoled by the friendly caregiver or the worst was actually if the child didn’t seem to care at all that mom left. The point being that you WANT your child to be distressed without you (at this point in their lives). This is a sign that you have done such a good job of meeting their needs that they are concerned that they won’t be ok without you. This is the sign of an emotionally healthy baby. Naturally, a baby will begin to learn that they will be ok without you, but that comes gradually and does not need to be trained.

So it’s very important for us as moms (or dads) to recognize that separation anxiety is normal and healthy. Take it as a sign that you did those first 5 months well! If your baby gets distressed and has difficulty being consoled when you leave, consider how you can bond more with your baby when you are together to try and reassure your baby that they can always depend on you. When babies have an internal sense of security, they will feel more confident when it comes to exploring their world and being with other people. Think of it like a romantic relationship. When a man and woman first meet, they are so excited about one another but their “love” is very shallow. One may feel slightly nervous if the other chats with another attractive person. However, as time goes on, they learn to trust one another. They trust their love for one another. What once may have made them nervous, no longer causes the slightest anxiety after 50 years of marriage. Why do we think babies are any different? We have to earn their trust, it doesn’t just come naturally.

Again, this checking back behavior is normal and healthy. It begins from 5-10 months and will actually continue until 24-36 months of age. So ironically, trying to force a child to become more comfortable without you may backfire. Just as a the husband who tells his wife that she’s silly for worrying about him “going out with the guys,” his lack of empathy will only bring further distress to his wife. Nothing will actually soothe her anxiety but many loving interactions that come with time. This is why it can take two to three years for kids to feel confident in their relationship with mom and dad.

At some point around the second birthday, children begin to be more comfortable separating from their mothers, knowing that they will return (object constancy). This ability makes it possible for two year olds to accept that they are unique from their mothers without anxiety, allowing the child to engage substitutes for the mother when she is absent. –Elizabeth Grace from her summary on Mahler’s stages of development

Ok, take your nerd glasses off now. What the heck does this mean for us as parents? A lot of AWKWARD situations! How fun is it to hand your sweet cooing baby to Aunt Mildred and then have baby explode into tears once in her arms? Or how about when you do leave your kid at daycare and they have a meltdown. The other kids all seem to be fine right? Well, maybe sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. Don’t compare your kid to others. You never know their unique situation. Instead, take a deep breath and don’t worry about the disruption you feel you are causing others. They’re adults, they can handle it. Your kid, however, is not an adult and doesn’t yet have the ability to self-soothe or really understand the situation.

Take the time to comfort and soothe your baby. Again, fighting it will only teach them that they can’t come to you with their fears. Take their distress as a compliment that they see you as important and that they believe you can soothe them. Think about it, when you’re having a bad day, who do you go to? Someone who is a good listener and cares for you… or the jerk who tells you to “buck up” and get over it. My guess is you’re going to go to the nurturing person. We have to be that for our kids. I know it’s super awkward and you have to endure people rolling their eyes or telling you that you’re spoiling your baby. I’m genuinely sorry that you’ll have to hear that. It sucks. But you know what? When you have a kid who comes to you at age 15 to talk about their latest break-up rather than their “expert” peers, you’ll be happy you laid such a strong foundation of trust and support.

To read more about Mahler’s Stages of Development click here for a short summary.

So, I’m curious to hear your awkward situations, anyone have an “Aunt Mildred” meltdown? How did you handle it?


If you are looking for positive ways to help your baby transition well into a daycare type situation, check out these tips from Positive Parenting Ally:

10 Tips to Ease Baby Separation Anxiety

Baby separation anxiety - child clinging to Mom

1) Accept baby separation anxiety and keep meeting your baby’s need for you:
Your baby cannot be spoilt with attention and love, only grow. The more you give, the more your child will thrive!

When your baby observes that you react positively to his signals, your baby will feel this as an acceptance of him (the seed of a positive self image has been planted).

Also, quickly and consistently meeting your baby’s need for attachment or parental bonding will help him build trust and confidence in people; ‘Mom (help and comfort) is there if I need it!’

2) Ignore parenting advice focusing on spoiling or rigidly teaching independence: 
Autonomy and independence are highly treasured values today in our western society. For some reason these values are also thought to apply to babies: ‘A good baby will sit playing by himself for a long time’ or ‘A good baby will fall asleep by him- or herself!’

These are common expectations. I had them. (If your baby lives up to these ideas, it’s great, but don’t expect it) – a baby is a baby and not an adult – besides, numerous practical studies of attachment theory have also demonstrated that baby dependence paves the road to natural and healthy child independence.

3) Keep separation situations reduced when possible:
The more your baby clings to you, the more alluring it may seem to force feed ‘lessons of independence’ to your baby by ignoring your baby’s needs.

It’s completely natural to think this way (I know I did when things ran high), but you may not want to go there! Your baby isn’t manipulating you. He or she really needs you to feel whole and secure.

But if you really have to leave to go somewhere at some point, which we all do, there are ways to prepare your baby for it:

Baby separation anxiety: little baby boy with a teddy bear or a lovey

4) Introduce a baby lovey as a separation soother:
A lovey or in the sophisticated language of psychology, a transitional object, is a treasured toy or a beloved item that will help your baby cope with your absence.

To some extent, a successful lovey will ‘replace’ you as a source of security when you’re gone. For some children this is a great source of comfort, for other children, loveys are pointless.

Try it out and if it works, wonderful! Personally, I could never get my son permanently interested in one, but in my son’s nursery I saw babies and even kids comforted by anything from pillows to teddy bears to small blankets.

Usually a baby lovey is soft and cuddly in order to imitate human physical closeness. But if your child falls in love with a spoon because it fits nicely into his or her hand, wonderful, seize the day!

5) Play ‘peek-a-boo’ to gently introduce concepts of separation and reunion:
As I mentioned, your child now has a firm grasp of separation but hasn’t necessarily understood that things (you) will return. Games like hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo and where’s-the-baby are said to help your baby understand that things go away and return.

For instance, you can put a cloth over your head or your baby’s head and then suddenly remove it to your baby’s great pleasure. Many babies love this game and don’t feel their security threatened.

If your child accepts it, you may also experiment by quickly leaving the room while singing or talking so that you’re out sight but can still be heard.

But don’t force it – it’s a game that requires acceptance from you child. Remember, you are doing it for your child, not the other way around.

My son liked the peek-a-boo games but I’m doubtful as to whether they had any effect on his baby separation anxiety and I sure couldn’t leave him happy on his own even if I was singing … and it was in tune!

6) Gently introduce day care or babysitters: 
If you have the possibility of leaving your baby with familiar people this is great. But many don’t have that option in the long run.

So if your child is starting day care or has to be cared for by babysitters, use your gut feeling as to who you entrust your baby to and try to make arrangements for a slow introduction period, perhaps a few weeks.

Be present the first couple of times and then initiate brief separation periods which you gradually make longer and longer; 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour etc.

7) Don’t avoid the goodbyes:
Explain to your child what will happen; that you have to go but will be back later and say goodbye and then leave (your child may not understand your words now but will very soon).

It’s important that your baby sees you leaving. If you sneak out thinking it will be easier on the child (and on you), chances are that you will make your child’s baby separation anxiety even stronger. Your baby may end up feeling general anxiety because he or she may never know if all of sudden you decide to be gone.

What your baby needs now is to learn the simple pattern that you say goodbye, you leave, and you return later.

8) Don’t prolong the goodbyes:
The longer you stay, the more you invite your baby ‘to fight’ in vain for your staying. Also it’s painful for both of you. If it can be done, stay until your child is happily engaged in playing, then say goodbye, make sure your baby sees it, and leave.

If your baby is crying, (It took more than 1 year for my son to stop crying at my departure even though I knew he was being taken good care of) be strongly present with your child, explain what is to happen, what a wonderful a time he will have (positive preparation of your baby’s consciousness), kiss and leave with a reassuring smile.

9) Leave with a positive attitude:
You are a mirror to your child – your child is so quick to suck up what you’re feeling. If your child’s sees you unhappy leaving him or her, then it may reinforce the baby separation anxiety: ‘Mom (or Dad) is unhappy, something must be wrong. This situation is not good!’.

If you leave with your chin up (and yes, it’s tough to see your child unhappy) you’ll indirectly tell your child: ‘Everything is ok!’

10) Don’t come back until you are really back:
It’s okay to stand behind the door and listen to how long it takes for your child to calm down. But stay cool, don’t go in.

By going in, you indirectly tell your baby that his or her efforts are worthwhile … today! But you can’t always come back. This inconsistency will confuse your child and perhaps make his or her baby separation anxiety grow.

Even though it took more than a year for my son not to cry at my departure, I knew that his crying would only last a minute or two at the most. I knew that from listening behind the door and from what the day care staff told me.

When Nothing Works!

One consistent companion you have when dealing with your child and baby separation anxiety, is your parental instinct, or in other words, your gut feeling.

Use it!

Trust it!

I simply can’t stress this enough!

If you sense something is not right with your choice of day care institution or sitter, don’t ignore it.

Perhaps there is poor chemistry between your baby and the carer(s), perhaps the pedagogical strategies are unsuited for your child’s personality or perhaps your child is extra sensitive and needs to be in a setting with fewer children to feel secure. There could be many reasons.

Have a good talk with the day care staff or babysitter – many professional cares are professional and as they spend many hours a day with your child, they often have a pretty good idea of why your child may not be settling in.

However, if you feel your care provider is not the right choice, you may want to seriously consider new childcare arrangements.

Baby separation anxiety is tough on all involved, your baby needs you desperately, your partner may feel overlooked or useless and you may just crave two minutes by yourself.

But like everything else with kids, it’s a phase, it will slowly lessen, change character, and pass.
Your Positive Parenting Ally,


10 thoughts on “When Babies Display “Stranger Danger”

  1. my dd is VERY attached to me, and that’s a good thing since I practice attachment parenting. i’ve been a SAHM since day one. she experiences separation anxiety quite often, even with my (and my husband’s) own immediate family. in the “aunt mildred” situation, i always try to stay as close as possible and reassure her that aunt mildred has my approval. i do this, but giving aunt mildred a hug and telling izabella that “mommy love aunt mildred and she loves us”. if within a minute she’s still crying or uncomfortable, I take her in my arms. i acknowledge that she’s not ready to be held by someone else, by actually saying it. i also explain to aunt mildred that my young toddler needs to “warm up” to her. usually she will, and if not that’s okay. i don’t think i should force izabella to do so. the only time there isn’t much of an option, is if she’s being babysat by my mom. even in that case, i try by best to make it as painless as possible. the term “spoiled” has been brought it in more than one occasion. as much as i try to explain the facts, ignorant ideas sometimes hinder my instinctual style of handling my child’s emotions.


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  3. I loved this, Jaclyn, and have passed the info to some other mommy friends. For me, the most helpful things have been to make sure my sons (4 of ’em!) hear me say goodbye and watch me leave. I’ve had caregivers try to get me to sneak out, but I won’t do it. I also try to keep a good attitude about it, even when it is frustrating. The separation anxiety only lasts for a little while – we’re talking months here!. They won’t need me this way forever, but while they do, I want to be there for them, respecting their needs and assuring them that I am their safe place for as long as they need me to be.


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