Gail brought her 10-month-old son, John, to see me because he wasn’t sleeping through the night yet. The mom had had three previous miscarriages and a history of infertility that necessitated in vitro fertilization three times. And John, who appeared fine after a long delivery, had a seizure on the day of his discharge, requiring a week of observation and tests. He went home without meds and stayed seizure free.

    But Gail never got over her fear that something was wrong with John and she waited anxiously for the next shoe to drop. Her fears intensified at nighttime (as they do for most parents), to the point where she placed his crib beside her bed and put her arm through the slats to keep her hand on John’s back all night long. “If he has a seizure and stops breathing, I’ll know right away,” she rationalized. So every time John fussed during his transitions from his deep sleep to light sleep, Gail would wake up, pick him up and rock him. Thus the pattern was set for regular nighttime wakings.

    Selma Fraiberg, a child psychiatrist back in the mid-20th century, coined the phrase ‘ghosts in the nursery’ to describe the phenomenon whereby an adult brings experiences, beliefs and feelings from their past into their parenting.  This ‘baggage’ can later resurface subconsciously and haunt their parenting.

    But in my experience, it’s not just emotions and experiences from a parent’s past that can become ghosts. Ghosts can emerge from any experience parents encounter in the prenatal, pregnancy, perinatal or postnatal period that produce feelings like worry, fear or sadness.  These feelings tend to be pushed down below the surface only to re-emerge during the turbulence of a child’s acquiring new developmental tasks and stages. The ghosts can cause parents to become overly concerned and to overreact, making it difficult to parent in a detached, confident and effective manner.

    There are several predictable areas that are ripe for ghosts. Let me give you some examples.     

    1)  Sleep: these ghosts can be related to having a premie, experiencing an illness or apnea in the postnatal period, or having a history of infertility.

    2)  Feeding: these ghosts can be from SGA (small for gestational age), failed nursing, slow weight gain, or excessive reflux

    3)  Discipline: these ghosts can result from infertility issues, having adopted children, divorce, or being a single parent or a working mom

    4)  Letting kids grow up: these ghosts can arise from a history of life-threatening illness, having an only child, a history of miscarriages, or parental history of abuse/neglect.

    What happens is that because of issues such as infertility, illnesses, etc., parents experience intense feelings of worry and concern, which then make it difficult to see their kids as OK. It becomes hard to follow through with discipline because, “He’s so special, I hate to see him upset.”  Parents become over-concerned about weight gain, even though their now 5-year-old is obese.  Parents who were neglected as children vowed, Someday when I have kids I’ll be there for them, and now they are—all the time.

    The key is for parents to become aware of these feelings. They are normal and need to be affirmed once the emotions are on the table, rather than subconscious. This gives parents control over them and allows them to see the connection between past experience and current parenting. It will help them make more effective choices consciously. ‘Ghosts’ are not to be feared; they need to be expressed and understood, then they lose their power.

    So, if you keep finding yourself parenting in unhealthy ways and you ‘know better,’ you are probably dealing with a ghost in your nursery. Counseling can be a good ‘ghost-buster,’ and you can get back on track parenting the way you know is best.