When Heather Smith's family travelled to Newfoundland for a Christmas visit, the trip was supposed to be relaxing and exciting for everyone. But for six-month-old Rosie, the experience was more upsetting than exciting.
"All the relatives were dying to meet Rosie," Smith says. Rosie, however, was not nearly as enthusiastic about meeting them. Smith says her daughter sat on her lap and gave each aunt and uncle The Look when they came close—while clinging to her mother's arms.
"If one of them approached us, it got worse," Smith recalls. "She'd grip me even tighter and hide her face in my shoulder." With all the strange faces around, Smith couldn't even go to the bathroom without Rosie coming along. There were plenty of people willing to hold her, yet Smith knew she'd be miserable.
Newborns generally don't object too much if a stranger talks to them or holds them. They may even greet someone they've never met with one of those toothless, drooling grins. But all that can change somewhere around the middle of the first year—the actual timing varies from baby to baby. One day, your formerly sociable little one will start making strange, just as Rosie did.
Yet Rosie's reaction is not only normal, it's healthy, says Lynda Lougheed, program coordinator for Information Children at Simon Fraser University. "It means your baby knows who you are, and has developed feelings of attachment for you, his familiar person.
"Like anything else with babies, there are huge variations," continues Lougheed. "Some children are just more shy by nature, and may make strange for a couple of years, while others will grow out of this stage quite quickly."
Julia Strub's eight-month-old daughter, Ada, started making strange at around four months. "People would hold her and she would cry, and they'd say, 'She must be hungry,'" Strub explains. "But as soon as I took her back, she'd stop crying. She just wanted to be with me."
At a recent party, Strub watched Ada's reactions to the people who approached her: "First, she'd get this worried expression on her face, and keep turning to look at me. Then, if they came toward her, she'd close her eyes and bury her face in my sweater—as if she couldn't bear to even look at them. If they came right up to her and tried to talk to her or take her from me, she'd cry really hard."
Lougheed says not only are Ada's reactions typical, but they also indicate how to handle these situations. "If you can ask people to be careful about how they approach your baby, it will go a long way to helping her feel comfortable," she says.
Ask your visitors to keep their distance at first. It's natural for them to want to rush in and pick up your baby, but that can be overwhelming. If visitors can stand back and talk to mom or dad for a while, your baby will gradually relax. If he starts looking worried or hides his face, try walking away from the stranger until he seems calm again, and then slowly come closer.
When does making strange stop? Heather Smith says it took another six months before Rosie was comfortable with new people. "I just tried to make myself always available to her during that time and not to push her," she says. At two, Rosie's become a social butterfly who will happily go to anyone.