As little babies grow into bigger babies, little scares (like a quick startle after a loud noise) can grow into bigger ones (like inconsolable crying when Mommy leaves the room). Here’s how baby and toddler fears break down and how you can help.
Newborns: Instant Reflex
Thanks to their immature nervous systems, brand-new babies have trouble understanding, and coping with, certain sensory feedback. In particular, a newborn will startle (throwing her arms out wide with palms up, a move called the Moro reflex) and probably cry if she hears a loud noise, or feels a sensation of falling—say, if you change the way you are holding her. She’s not really afraid, just surprised. And she’s showing you that her brain is developing just as it should. This faux “fear” will fade as your baby grows. It disappears by the time she’s three or four months old.
Bigger Babies: Stranger Danger
At around 6 months old, babies start to understand the concept of object permanence: from now on, what’s out of sight isn’t out of mind after all. So when Mommy, Daddy, or another trusted caregiver isn’t nearby, baby starts to worry: Where is that important person? Is she coming back? What if she’s gone for good? (Cue the waterworks!)
Also around this same age—between 6 and 12 months—babies are learning the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces. That can lead to a real sense of stranger anxiety to go along with that separation anxiety.
How to soothe his fears: Start by leaving him for only short periods of time (30 minutes or less), gradually working up to longer separations. And don’t sneak away. That promotes distrust. Instead, have a brief, but consistent good-bye ritual. “Bye-bye, I’ll see you very soon!” is all you need.
One-Year-Olds: Out of Control
At about 12 months old, babies start wanting to exercise some control over their environment. When they encounter situations that they can’t control—such as a loud noise or an unpredictable animal or insect—they can feel scared. Ditto for new experiences, from people to places to foods. Unfamiliar equals frightening, which can lead to avoidance, crying, and even aggression.
How to soothe her fears: Give her control whenever you can. If she feels empowered, she may also feel brave. And respect her feelings. You know there’s no reason to fear a bowl of soup or your neighbor’s lap dog, but your baby really doesn’t. Let her know that it’s OK to be afraid but Mommy and Daddy will help her stay safe. And keep exposing her to new things, allowing her to decide when she’s ready to venture toward them.
Toddlers: Imagine Dragons
This is an exciting time in your baby’s life: he’s learning new skills and concepts, like imagination and make-believe, all the time. That also means he can develop new worries. He now knows how to dream up all kinds of scenarios about what scary thing could be lurking in the darkness. He also is starting to remember events, so he may recall a frightening moment after the fact and feel the fear all over again. Common toddler fears include separation, new foods, darkness, movies, nightmares, loud or unfamiliar noises, strangers, water, animals, monsters, and visiting the doctor.
How to soothe his fears: There are lots of steps you might take, depending on your child’s specific fears and how he expresses them. But overall, stay calm and be a role model. Maybe you’re afraid of spiders or heights yourself. Try to keep these worries from your toddler so he can see you as calm and brave.
Talk with your little one about what is real and what isn’t, and explain how scary things (such as thunder, or the bathtub drain) work if you can. Read books about characters overcoming fears. Be honest with your child about what he can expect—say, if he is getting a shot or you’re taking him to a darkened movie theater. Whenever possible, let him ease gradually into new or frightening experiences, with you nearby as a safety net.