As far-fetched as looking at your baby and disbelieving it is really your child seems to us today, changeling lore was taken very seriously in times past, and it was not only the superstition of the uneducated, rural folk. Babies suspected as changelings caused great angst among parents, who would sincerely worry for the safety of their real child, now surely in the hands of fairies. This 1913 masterpiece by John Bauer (below, from Swedish Fairy Tales) vividly illustrates this parental nightmare.
Very common in fairy tales, changelings are fairies disguised as the human children (tales of adult changelings are rare) who have been mysteriously exchanged in the night. Some changeling tales chronicle elderly fairies who want to be pampered as human babies in their final years. Other stories cite that the human babies and fairies were exchanged for any number of reasons: to prevent inbreeding amongst fairy cultures, to punish the human parents for some past wrongdoing, to replace a sick or deformed fairy baby with a healthy human infant, to name a few. We even found sacrificial stories in our research, with tales of human children taken for the purpose of offering to a devil creature in hopes of stronger fairy breeding. Changeling stories are wildly varied, but for the most part, these mysterious exchanges took place during the period after birth and before baptism, as unbaptized babies were seen as particularly vulnerable.
There is theory that changelings may have actually been the first recorded cases of autism, as autistic behavior is often described as elf-like, autistic children sometimes have a specialized talent in music or math, and, since they often feel out of place in society, they tend to display behavior that is hard for others to relate to or understand. It is likely that this misdiagnosis arose out of a desperate need for mothers to explain and rationalize their child’s peculiar and often entirely alien behavior. There was little research done on behavior disorders until the 20th century, and as such, superstitions and belief in magic were common. That the child was really a fairy was the only graspable explanation for people to explain the unexplainable in a world that knew about and believed in fairies, but had never heard of the term “special needs”.