Helping your children with fears and anxiety

Many infants and toddlers experience fear or anxiety. What may be challenging to parents is to know how to soothe their little ones.

Because infants cannot soothe themselves, primary caretakers do that for them – and that helps young children eventually internalize an ability to self-soothe, said Dr. Merrill Kingston, pediatric psychologist at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

Jade Elliott spoke with Kingston about tips to help your child.

“Infants are not born with a self-soothing function; they depend on primary caretakers to moderate strong emotional states for them, including anxiety,” Dr. Kingston said.

Babies and toddlers often express common fears and anxieties about the following:

  • Being alone
  •  The dark
  •  Dogs or other big animals
  •  Bugs
  •  Heights
  • Getting shots or going to the doctor
  • Unfamiliar or loud noises
  • Imaginary monsters — the “thing” under the bed
  •  Strangers (6-12 months)
  •  Separation (9-24 months)

But children can learn ways to calm themselves to cope with common fears. To facilitate self-soothing, parents can strive to:

  • Moderate or limit the amount of external stress-inducing events, such as anger, upset, and absence
  •  Limit developmentally overwhelming or anxiety-inducing influences, such as inappropriate media
  •  Recognize the child’s distress, such as fussing, crying or withdrawal, and provide verbal and physical soothing to calm that distress.

Issues that can interfere with a child learning to self-soothe include:

  • Primary caretaker absence (inability to recognize and soothe the anxious child)
  •  Primary caretaker or environment is overwhelming, reactive, dangerous, or scary (caretaker mental health struggles, food or housing insecurity, high crime rate, various other traumas).

“We recognize that parents are not perfect,” Dr. Kingston said. “We know, however, when the primary caretaker provides an adequate soothing function enough of the time, and if the external environment does not overwhelm the parent’s soothing abilities, the developing child will start to internalize the soothing function and begin to soothe himself or herself.”

While most fears and anxieties dissipate in time, there can be concern when they persist beyond developmental timelines, interfere with feeding or sleep, or when the child’s distress cannot be calmed.

In such cases, parents are urged to reach out to their pediatrician or medical provider, seek a psychological assessment or intervention, or contact family services.

More information is available at

The Baby Your Baby program provides many resources for all pregnant women and new moms in Utah. There is also expert advice from the Utah Department of Health and Intermountain Healthcare that air each week on KUTV 2News.