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What Your Baby Is Really Thinking When They Meet Santa

From relatives coming into town for the holidays to Santa Claus (whether real or fake), your baby is bound to meet some new people this holiday season. And even if your little one generally does well at meet and greets, it's important to understand what is going through your baby's head during these stimulating situations so you can help them feel safe.

You've probably seen those viral photos of babies crying on Santa's lap. And while they're funny at first glance, forcing your baby into this situation is usually not a good idea — even if you've already dressed them up, driven to the mall, and spent $45 on a photo op with Saint Nicholas. Meeting someone new can be nerve-wracking at any age (raise your hand if you also get super anxious about mingling at parties), and whether or not your baby typically gets distressed in new environments, these five psychologists have some insight into what's going through your baby's head when they're meeting new people, and what you can do to help them.

Be ready to walk away if it doesn't go well. Apologize to your baby.

"For newborns, going to the grocery store can be like a day at amusement park," Dr. Laura Jana, author of The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow, tells Romper over the phone. "Some people handle that better than others, even as adults." When it comes to meeting Santa, Jana says, parents can look at the experience from two sides.

Firstly, there's the expectations side for caregivers. "Be ready to walk away if it doesn't go well. Apologize to your baby," Jana advises, even if you are disappointed. She also suggests that parents can combat feeling let down by going into your Santa session with low expectations.

The second side, she explains, is understanding that babies are "emotion detectors." "[Babies] are much more attuned to others than a lot of people realize or give them credit for," Jana says. "They're very attuned to other people's emotions long before they can articulate theirs or control theirs."

Often, the way a baby responds to meeting new people will depend on their temperment. Dr. Stefanie Sinno, a professor of Developmental Psychology at Muhlenberg College, tells Romper that most young children fall into two camps when it comes to their nature.

The first camp encompasses children with an "approach positive temperament," meaning they are usually OK with — or even excited about — meeting new people. These kids are also typically calm in new environments, like loud restaurants.

The second camp describes children who are biologically more inhibited, which means they need time to ease into things. "It's not that they are fearful, or that they won't do it," explains Sinno. "It's that they need some time to figure out what is going on in the new environment."

Whichever camp you think your baby falls into, Sinno has the same advice for all parents. Because there is such a strong notion of attachment between babies and their caregivers, she suggests finding physical ways to show your baby that the new person is safe. She says that your cues are important, and if your baby looks worried, you shouldn't force them into the interaction. "They're looking to you to figure out their emotions," she says.

They'll think, 'Oh all right, you're cool with this person, I'm cool with this person,'

Small children aren't able to express or comprehend their emotions fully, and look to their parents to "kind of help read their emotions, Sinno says. "If they still look standoffish, hold them a little longer, or put them next to you." Or you can demonstrate to them that this person is OK. "Then they'll see you doing it, and they'll think, 'Oh all right, you're cool with this person, I'm cool with this person,'" she explains.

Psychotherapist Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, author of The Whole-Brain Child, agrees that forcing a child to connect with someone new is never the solution. "For some babies, interacting with a stranger will not be stressful, but for other babies, forcing an interaction...without time to warm up or feel safe and comfortable can be very stressful and even frightening," Dr. Bryson writes to Romper in an email. "Respect your baby’s timing by tuning into his or her responses and assure them that you will protect them and help them feel safe."

Forcing a child to do something can make the situation worse.

She also says that forcing a baby to do something can have negative effects on them. "The research shows that if we push independence before children are ready, it can make them more fearful and more dependent, but when children feel safe, they will move to independence," Dr. Bryson explains. "We don’t need to overprotect our children since facing challenges is good for building resilience, but resilience only happens in the context of safety and support."

In addition, forcing a child to do something can make the situation worse. "A new relative or Santa is an unknown entity and being forceful or insistent will only exacerbate the situation," social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman tells Romper via email. If your child is a toddler or older, she advises verbally preparing them to meet new people.

"If your child is old enough to understand the concept of, let’s say, Aunt Stella, it might help to talk about how much fun she is before the meeting or why you are so fond of her," Dr. Newman suggests. "Given time and no pressure from a parent ... a child will warm up to a relative if allowed to do so at his or her own pace. Keep in mind that there will be many more occasions and holidays for relatives to interact with your child."

Because babies' brains are still developing, their minds are mostly just focused on emotions and feelings. "A baby doesn't have cognitive thoughts but associations and bodily feelings," Dr. Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, explains to Romper in an email. "Also, baby timing is much slower than what we think. You can't just move into a relationship without taking the time to signal back and forth the safety of the situation, coaxing the baby into trusting."

Dr. Narvaez explains that as babies get older, their concerns evolve. For example, the primary concern for a baby newborn to 4 months old is usually safety. A 5- to 9-month-old might think, "Do you see me? Are you a conversation partner? Do you pick up on my signals? Can we connect?" A 10- to 18-month-old is likely to think, "Are you a playmate? Will you let me test myself? Will you enjoy life with me?"

So no matter your baby's age or temperament, the most important thing is to always show your child that they are safe. And if you don't manage to get the perfect shot of your kiddo smiling on Santa's lap, there's always next year.

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