Parenting Resources

Fears and Phobias in Infants and Toddlers

One of the first fears demonstrated by infants between 4 and 9 months of age is “stranger anxiety”. As infants recognize their parents’ faces, they become aware of those individuals who are different – and infants often demonstrate adverse reactions to those “strangers” (even grandparents or other relatives who have not been seen on a regular basis).  Visiting relatives can be asked to approach the infant more slowly, taking time to talk to the infant from a distance, rather than quickly approaching and picking up the baby.  Reassuring physical touches and hugs along with calm, soothing words are appropriate parental responses to infants’ stranger anxiety.

 As noted in the research above, parental response to infant pain associated with immunization is a strong predictor of that child’s later response to pain.  So when your infant receives immunizations, calmly speak soothing words of reassurance and gently distract your infant to something more pleasant. “Daddy is here holding you.  Let’s look out the window now.” If you overreact, not only will your infant be more likely to cry for a longer period of time, but may experience more pain later on.

 Toddlers often progress to develop a fear of darkness, loud noises, large objects, and people viewed as “different” (like Santa Claus or clowns).  A parent is often surprised the first time the toddler cries and shrinks away from the vacuum cleaner when he had never demonstrated that fear in the past.  (why does this happen…)?

 This is the perfect opportunity for parents to begin calmly using “emotion” words, even before the toddler can articulate those thoughts.  “I see you are afraid of the vacuum cleaner.  It does make a loud noise.”  This identifies the emotion and normalizes it, showing the toddler that the parent understands the emotion and is willing to talk about it. 

 Another common fear is that of the dark.  In an effort to “prove” to the child there’s nothing to fear, some parents refuse to leave lights on or doors ajar.  Instead of ignoring this fear, parents can sit on the bed a few minutes, and read or tell a calming story.  They can leave the door part way open, and they can also continue to reassure the child, “I’m here, I’ll check in on you.”

 If there is a way to minimize the exposure to the object of fear, that may be beneficial – i.e. use of a nightlight, not forcing a toddler to sit on Santa’s lap.  However, parental over-reaction by scooping up a fearful toddler when a dog is seen across the street will reinforce to the toddler that dogs are dangerous.  Parents instead should calmly give information, “Most dogs are not dangerous. Maybe one day you will want to say hi to the dog.”

 Parents should never ridicule or make fun of the fearful toddler – or fearful child of any age. Parents should also never use the fear as a threat and should never express indifference to the fear.  Please acknowledge the fear and reassure the child you are there to protect her.