One of the more problematical behavioral characteristics of older infants is something called “stranger anxiety.” Grandma comes to visit when the baby is about 5 months old. They have a wonderful time playing together. Grandma returns to her home in another state. She comes back when the baby is about 10 months old. She runs to the baby with outstretched arms, enthusiastically shouting, “Grandma’s here!” The baby freaks out. He screams, cries, and steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with Grandma. Grandma is heartbroken and the parents are embarrassed.
Why does this happen? Well, at about 3 months of age, the baby develops social awareness, the understanding that he is a separate entity. After that, he takes great delight in social interactions. But then, at around 7 or 8 months of age, his cognitive development advances to the point where he achieves greater understanding of what is going on. And at that point, it is like he says, “This social interaction stuff is great, and I want to get good at it. But I think it is kind of complicated. People do something then I’m supposed to do something, there is this turn-taking thing, etc. So you know what? While I’m getting the basics down, I’m going to focus on the people I deal with all the time, and everyone else is just going to have to back off and give me some space.” Consequently, for the next few months, he will continue to have pleasant interactions with his primary caretakers, but anyone else is likely to get the freak out reaction.
So parents, grandparents, and others should be comforted to know that this is merely a side effect to advances in cognitive development that will eventually pass. They also should know that like side effects to medication, not all infants will experience stranger anxiety. If a baby does demonstrate it, that does not mean he has an emotional disorder, and if a baby does not demonstrate it, that does not mean he is not emotionally attached to his mother and father. In other words, it may be something that will require patience and understanding, but it is not something that should engender disappointment or dismay.