How to deal with your baby's fear of strangers

Jan 4, 2008 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Every dad needs support, encouragement, information, confidence and tools to help him be as involved as he possibly can with his new family. Our fatherhood expert, Armin Brott, author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be and Father for Life: A Journey of Joy, Challenge, and Change , has advice for your growing family!

Crying baby girl

Your question:

Our baby used to love new people. My husband and I could hand him to anyone and he'd just smile and coo. But starting when he turned seven months, his behavior changed completely. He's gotten incredibly clingy and he cries if anyone he doesn't know comes anywhere near him. What's going on?

Armin Brott answers:

Welcome to stranger anxiety, your baby's first fear. What's happening is that your baby is just beginning to figure out that he and you (and his other primary caretakers) are separate human beings. It's a scary idea, and he's simply afraid that some person he doesn't like very much might take you -- and all the services you provide -- away.

Stranger anxiety affects 50 to 80 percent of babies. It usually kicks in at around seven or eight months, but sometimes not until a year. It can last anywhere from a few weeks to six months. Here are a few things you can do to help your baby (and yourself) cope with stranger anxiety.

Start off slowly

  • If you're getting together with friends, try to do it at your own house instead of someplace else. The baby's reaction will be less dramatic in a familiar place.
  • Hold your baby closely whenever you enter a new environment or anyplace where there are likely to be other people.
  • When you enter a new place, don't just hand the baby off to someone he doesn't know. Let him cling to you for a while and use you as a safe haven.

Be patient

  • Warn friends, relatives and strangers not to be offended by the baby's shyness, crying, screaming or overall reluctance to have anything to do with them. Tell them to approach the baby as they might any other wild animal: slowly, cautiously, with a big smile, talking quietly, and perhaps even offering a toy.
  • Be patient with your baby. Don't pressure him to go to strangers or even to be nice to them. And don't criticize him if he cries or clings to you.

Plan ahead

  • If you're leaving the baby with a new sitter, have her or him get to your house at least 20 minutes before you have to leave. This will (hopefully) give baby and sitter a few minutes -- with you nearby -- to get to know each other.
  • If your husband stays at home with the baby while you're at work, you need to understand that your baby might lump you in with the people he considers strangers. Don't take it personally. Just follow the steps above on how strangers should approach the baby, and be patient.