Do babies and young children see ghosts? If you’ve pondered the question, you’re not alone.
Clinical child psychologist Dr Erin Bowe says it’s something she gets asked “quite a bit”. “It’s not necessarily the primary reason why someone might see me, but once they’re comfortable with me they’ll say, ‘oh, by the way …’ and then raise the topic.”
After a few spooky situations, it’s something Jane, a mum of two, has wondered. “My eldest son used to sit in his cot and, from about five months of age, would be talking to someone, laughing and carrying on after he woke up … I remember it looked like he was having a conversation. It was really different to how my youngest now sits in his cot when he wakes and plays.
“I really believe he was playing with his older sister who died at birth a year before he was born.”
Possible connections to “the other side” again crossed Jane’s mind when her younger son was five months old and began to have “animated conversations” with blank walls.
Jane admits, though, it may be her own beliefs leading her to these conclusions. “If I didn’t believe in spirits and angels, I may not have thought too much about it and just maybe passed it off as playing,” she says.
Bowe agrees that parents can sometimes “inadvertently be in the habit of placing an adult’s interpretation on children’s behaviour”.
She also offers an alternative explanation for Jane’s observations: “Around six months of age, babies become quite alert and are practising their communication skills. It’s quite normal to see them practising these skills by babbling away seemingly to someone who isn’t there.
“A baby’s visual acuity and hearing is also improving, so they start to develop an interest in the fine details. That tiny speck on the wall that’s not very interesting to us may be absolutely fascinating for a healthy, active six month old.”
However, Bowe emphasises there’s often no right or wrong explanation. “There are all sorts of world views and perspectives and [a more scientific explanation] is just one of them. People can believe whatever they like. The main thing is not to be distressed by the behaviour.”
Gwen, a mother of two adult children, says that although her grand-niece’s behaviour when visiting a crematorium was a little “weird”, it brought her comfort rather than causing distress.
“The first time we took her, aged three, to the crematorium to leave flowers for her grandmother, who was my sister, we gave her some flowers to lay down. She stood up straight, gave a big smile and started running away down the path towards a gazebo that was nearby, calling out ‘Nanny’,” she says.
“For a long time, each time we went there she’d walk to the gazebo and, when asked where she was going, she’d say, ‘Nanny’s house’.”
Gwen continues: “I think small children see loved ones whether they are actually there or they just believe them to be still with them. I would sit in the gazebo even without my grand-niece and feel [my sister’s] presence.”
Many share Gwen’s beliefs about the spirit world, as reports indicate close to half of us believe in ghosts. And the New Age world offers an attractive theory for open-minded parents: babies and children, free of social constraints and conditioning, are said to be in a better position to connect with the spirit world.
Another mum, Kiara, says she’s “never been a huge believer in ghosts” but her two-year-old daughter’s behaviour has now opened her mind to the idea.
As soon as her daughter could string words together, she started talking about her “lady”, and at around 18 months, the “lady” became a daily part of her daughter’s life. “She would be happily playing with her toys on her own but when I’d walk into the room she would get grumpy and tell me it was because the lady didn’t like me … or I’d ask if she wanted me to read a story and she would tell me the lady would do it. Then she’d sit with a book and point at pictures saying ‘pretty’ and ‘wow’.”
Kiara’s curiosity about her daughter’s “lady” has been heightened by other things, including her daughter developing a “strange accent” and making a curious request to buy her “lady” legs for Christmas.
Initially, Kiara just went along with the idea of the “lady”. Bowe agrees that this is the best approach and says parents should generally not make a big deal of proving that the person or thing isn’t real. And if the child is distressed, she recommends simply providing some calm reassurance.
If it’s mum or dad who is feeling distressed about paranormal explanations for their child’s behaviour, Bowe reminds us that “children’s imaginative worlds are limitless, and don’t contain the same social and physical rules of the adult world”.
And while she offers up alternative, more evidence-based explanations for behaviour that may give parents goose bumps, she points out, “we can ask what it’s about but we’re not necessarily going to get an unequivocal answer”.