Changelings in Irish Folklore


A changeling is a member of the sídhe that has taken the place of a human, most oftentimes a baby. Sídhe is a term that refers to the Irish Fae – the “fairies” – but the word sídhe actually means a mound in the ground. I believe it typically referred to a burial mound, and this comes from folklore where the Tuatha de Danaan were forced to go underground. And they went into the sídhe and they are – it’s complicated. They can be seen as the sídhe but they’re not. But anyway, so the sídhe are the Irish Fair Folk. A changeling is Fae that has taken the place of a baby. Sometimes, it wasn’t just the babies that they took the place of. Sometimes it was mothers, and we’ll talk about that in a second.

But why?

One of the most common questions – or my question – is why would the changelings take the place of a baby? Or why would the changelings take the place of a new mom? There are a few different theories on why they would do this. I also need to mention that depending on the stories that you read, the changeling wasn’t always a Fae that had taken the place of the baby. Some of the stories that I’ve read have said that the changelings would come in, steal the baby away and, in its place, leave a block of wood that was enchanted to look like a baby. 

Changeling - Wikipedia
Der Wechselbalg by Henry Fuseli, 1781

But the two main reasons that I have found for why a changeling would take a baby is because they wanted to raise the human babies as their own, in their world, and be sort of united with them. Another reason that I found pertains to the changelings taking the place of a new mom. Now, that reason says that the Fae needed to have human breastmilk for their babies. So, what they would do is they would put a changeling in place of a new mom and steal the new mom away to the Otherworld to basically raise and care for the Fae children (source).

There’s also another story out there that says the Fae would exchange their own children for a human child if their own child was sick in any way – any sort of sickness. The stories go that one of the ways you could tell a changeling apart from a human baby is that the child would be sick all the time. The child would constantly cry or just look very ill, very pale or yellow – and so the myth was that the Fae would exchange their sick children for healthy human babies. 

Can you tell the difference?

There really isn’t a definitive answer for how to tell the difference between a human baby and a changeling. As I said, there are a lot of different stories that account for different people’s experiences or mythology and folklore. Some say that changelings are inconsolable, they cry and scream, or they just look odd – or it could be even that they don’t talk. They don’t develop. There’s actually a really good song that I listen to – I believe it’s by Heather Dale – and it’s called Changeling Child. The song tells a story of a woman who bartered with the fairies, bartered with the Fae Folk. Since she was barren and couldn’t have children, she asked the fairy queen for a baby. Now, if you have any dealings with the Fair Folk, you would know that you need to be literal, you typically do not thank them as far as I’m aware. The general consensus in working with the Fae is just don’t do it because of their mythology and their history and their stories. But in the song, she asked for a baby, so she got a baby. And that’s all she got, because she got a changeling child and the changeling child never aged. So, the woman would age and age and age and, eventually, she died of old age. But the child never did because it was a changeling. 

Can you keep them away?

In looking at how to keep changelings away from your children, there are a few different things. Now, a lot of my research into changelings is through a Christian lens because a lot of it was written after the Catholic church took over everything in Ireland.

Baptize Your Babies

So, one of the main ways that it is written to keep a changeling away from your baby, or to keep the Fae from stealing your baby and replacing it with a changeling, is to have your baby baptized. There are some stories that say that babies are essentially impure until they are baptized. I’m not familiar with that, but all of my sources will be linked below. One of the main ways that people would protect their children from changelings was to have them baptized as babies.

Open Your Bible

Along those same lines of looking through a Christian perspective, some stories say you can protect a baby from the Fae by either keeping an open bible around the baby’s cradle, placing an open bible underneath the baby’s pillow, or even opening a bible during childbirth and leaving it next to the mother while she’s in labor. 

Don’t Over Look A Baby

Outside of a Christian lens, one of the things that is said to keep the Fae away is to not “over look a baby”. And that doesn’t mean standing over them and just looking over them like oh, how cute! How precious! You know, what they mean by over look a baby is to look at the baby with envy or jealousy. This would then attract the attention of the Fae. So, one of the main ways to keep a changeling away is to not over look a baby. 


Another common method is to keep some form of iron around. There are two different stories that I have found that say keeping iron tongs over the top of the baby’s cradle would keep the Fae away. Keeping an open pair of iron scissors hanging on the wall above the baby’s cradle is said to keep the Fae away. Normally anything iron is said to keep Fae away, so people would use tongs, scissors, keys, anything iron because the Fae do not like iron.

Can you work with them?

In my Discord group, I posed the question of what people wanted to know about changelings. Do you have any questions about changelings? And someone asked if changelings are beings that you can work with. My general answer would be no, because they aren’t typically seen as a being that can help you in any way, essentially. The whole point of the Fae bringing in a changeling to replace your baby was to steal your baby. So, no, I don’t think that working with changelings is either possible or even something that you should consider. It is my general opinion that unless you know what you’re doing, you have a very solid foundation in your path, lots of protections, and just a good all-around education that you shouldn’t work with the Fae anyway because it can be dangerous. The Fae aren’t the fuzzy little fairies like Tinkerbell that you see on TV. That’s just…not it.

Can you make them go away if they’re already around?

Now, this last little bit of information here I need to preface and say DO NOT DO ANY OF THIS PLEASE. Okay? These are common methods that were used to get rid of changelings. A lot of the methods that detail how to get rid of changeling and get your baby brought back to you involve fire, okay? So – it’s ridiculous for me to think about because all I’m picturing in my head is someone with their “baby” that is a changeling and doing some of these things.

A Hot Pan

One of the most common methods of getting rid of a changeling is to start a fire, put a pan over the fire so it gets hot, and then to place the changeling on the hot pan. Since the baby is a changeling, the changeling will hop up, run up the chimney, and then your baby will be brought back to you.

Fair Folk Remorse?

There’s also another story that I read that I found was really interesting, and it was the only story like this that I found. It recounts the story of a mother who had just found out that her baby was a changeling. Obviously she was very upset, but a knock came on her door and in walked a Fae woman carrying her baby. The Fae woman appeared to have remorse for what happened and told the mother that it was the others that had stolen her baby away. She brought her baby back because the Fae woman wanted her own child back. This is interesting because it sort of humanizes the Fae in that aspect. But again, that was the only story like that that I could find.

Hot Tongs

Another story details a method of threatening the changeling with hot tongs. And so you would essentially put the hot tongs in the fire, turn to the changeling, and then the changeling would speak to you. You would threaten the changeling with the hot tongs, either to burn it or, you know, do something that is not nice – and the changeling would then say, “Please let me go. I will go back home and bring you your baby back.”

Beat And Starve The Changeling

The last method tells the story of a mother who found out her baby was a changeling. She had left her baby in the corner of a field that she was working in and then, all of a sudden, it started to cry. When she got back, she looked at it and it was not her baby. It was a changeling. She picked it up, she carried it and pretended to care for it. She’s walking and she’s caring for it, trying to calm it down because it’s crying and she walks all the way to a wise woman’s house. Now, the wise woman tells her that yes, her baby is a changeling, and what she needs to do is she needs to basically starve it. Don’t give it any food, no water, and beat it and pinch it for as long as she can and as hard as she wants, essentially. So, a week goes by and she’s doing this every day. The changeling hasn’t had any food or drink. The changeling has been beaten every day. And finally, the changeling gives up and said, “Please don’t beat me anymore. I am going to bring you your baby back.” And her baby was brought back to her.

Is it a changeling, though?

Now, through all of these stories, one thing that sticks out to me are the symptoms of changelings. I’m not going to discount the idea of changelings because it is very possible in my belief system. Changelings are legitimate and a 100% real occurrence. However, some of the things that are described as being “symptoms” of a baby being a changeling, for me, just sound like the baby was sick or had some sort of mental disorder or some sort of physical deformity. So, we need to take that into account when we look at the historical significance of these stories, too. Because while they may have been changelings, there is also the possibility that the children were just different, that they were just sick, or had a physical deformity.

From Belief in Fairies, The School’s Collection, Volume 0888, page 213. Copyrighted by National Folklore Collection.

There is a certain amount of belief in “changelings” in this district though people are reticent about the subject. There is at present a woman living about a mile from my home, who is said to “have been in the fairies.” It is said that when a tiny child, she got into a trance and remained so for years, neither talking nor eating, so it is understood that she was changed or “taken” by the Good People and kept with them for years. After some years she was returned and the changeling disappeared – and though quite normal and now married, this woman is always looked upon as having been “In the Fairies”.

Sources and Further Reading

* Are the Tuatha de Danaan Sidhe? – Lora O’Brien
* Heather Dale – Changeling Child
*The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry Into Fairy Mythology by Edwin Sidney Hartland [1891]
*Fairy Legends and Traditions by Thomas Crofton Croker [1825]
*Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde [1887]
*Sidhe Faerie Folk
* Changeling Stories from Real People
*Belief in Fairies – National Folklore Collection

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