Infants are born with very immature nervous systems. To speak of infant fears is, therefore, a bit of an exaggeration in as much as we usually think of fears as targeted and specific. But infant fear responses are global and general. Two types of experiences with which the baby’s immature nervous system is as yet unable to cope usually provoke such responses. One of these is extreme stimulation: such as loud noises, very bright lights, powerful smells. The other experience is the fear of falling. You will see the fear response, for example, if you happen to drop something that makes a loud noise when it hits the floor. Likewise if you put the baby down too quickly, he or she will also react with the global fear response. At the same time you can pass the baby around from you to grandparent with any toward reaction since this avoids giving the infant the sensation of falling.
As the baby’s nervous system matures and his or her mental abilities develop, new forms of fear emerge. By the age of eight or nine months, the infant attains what famed child psychologist Jean Piaget called object permanence. During the first few months of life infants have no understanding of the fact that objects continue to exist when they are no longer present to his or her senses. For the young infant, quite literally, out of sight is out of mind. Towards the end of the first year, however, infants are able to construct mental images of objects and appreciate that they continue to exist even when they can no longer be heard or seen. But while the infant appreciates that the object continues to exist, he or she does still not understand the object will return after it disappears from view; hence the fear and anxiety over a parent’s disappearance—separation anxiety. I demonstrated this fear reaction with my nine-month-old granddaughter Lily. I gave her my car keys to play with and she was happily jingling them when I meanly took them away, and, while she watched, hid them under my handkerchief. Lily wailed and I immediately gave the keys back to her. It was only towards the end of the second year that she was able to reason, “keys in the hand, hand under handkerchief, keys under handkerchief” and to swiftly retrieve the keys on her own.
Fears are normal and healthy. When they are older, children will develop healthy fears such as not to touch hot things and not to run in the street. The infant’s early fears are healthy as well. Extreme stimulation is not beneficial to the child’s developing nervous system. And separation anxiety can have a useful bonding function when the infant demonstrates her attachment by crying when the parent leaves. The important distinction is to help children develop healthy fears and not those that serve no useful purpose.
By Professor David Elkind. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood, and how you can support your child's healthy development every step of the way.