Dolls Are Not a Substitute for Babies

Diana Zuckerman, PhD and Jessica Becker

Updated December 2010

Adults assume that teenagers would be less likely to get pregnant if they knew how hard it is to care for a baby. That was the theory behind the development of Baby Think it Over (BTIO), a computerized infant simulator doll. Unfortunately, several studies suggest that taking care of these baby dolls does nothing to discourage teens from becoming parents.

One study involved girls between the ages of 10-15, attending an urban middle school in a mainly low-income Hispanic neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.1 None of the girls who were studied had ever been pregnant, but 80% of the girls had some babysitting experience and therefore at least some knowledge about babies. Before the girls got to bring their “baby” home, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about what they thought taking care of the baby doll would be like. When given statements like, “it will be hard to wake up at night and feed the doll,” the girls had to pick from among these responses:  “extremely true for me”, “true for me”, “not true for me”, or “not true at all for me.” The girls were then asked to care for the “baby” for 3 days and 2 nights, and afterwards, they were asked to fill out the exact same questionnaire.

By comparing the girls’ answers to the statements on the questionnaire before they took the baby doll home to their responses after caring for it, the researchers were able to determine if the girls had “learned anything” from their experience. According to the researchers, if a girl found the experience to be more difficult than she had anticipated, then she learned something from her experience with the doll. This means that the girls who thought that taking care of the doll would be hard and then found it as hard or even easier to care for than they had anticipated did not learn from the experience.

Less than one-third of the girls thought that taking care of a real infant would be similar to caring for the computerized baby. However, the girls who found taking care of the baby doll more difficult than they had expected were the ones most likely to think that taking care of a real baby would be easier. This means that the girls who “learned the most” (who found the experience to be much harder than they anticipated) were also the most likely to think that a real baby would be easier to care for than the doll was! The researchers attributed this unexpected finding to the tendency of kids this age to think of themselves as invincible or immune to certain kinds of problems that only affect “other people.”  It is also possible, though, that since these girls had some experience with real babies, they also knew that real babies provide some positive payback for all the hard work: a human response to being cared for and loved, such as a genuine smile.

Perhaps one of the most important findings had to do with the girls’ attitudes toward being a teenage parent. Out of 109 girls in the study, 13 (12%) wanted to be teen parents before they cared for BTIO, and 16 (15%) wanted to be teen parents after they cared for the doll. That’s right, three more girls actually wanted to be a teen parent after having taken care of the doll!

Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that the doll was not an effective way to discourage girls from becoming teen mothers.

A similar study was done with both boys and girls in a white, middle class, Midwestern neighborhood.2 After the study was over, the participants-nearly all of whom claimed at least some experience with babies-were asked to rate how the program affected them. Most teens (79%) said that taking care of the doll made them “a little more concerned about becoming pregnant as a teenager,” and 4% said that taking care of the doll made them more confident about being a teen parent.

What the researchers didn’t find was a change in the kids’ attitudes towards sex or the use of birth control. This study also found that many of the students didn’t treat the dolls like a real baby and therefore the experiment wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Nevertheless, the researchers believe that caring for a doll doesn’t serve as a big deterrent to teens having sex or becoming pregnant.

While most of the studies on the impact of the Baby Think It Over have not found the educational program to be effective, one study of nine high school girls, conducted by Ann Malinowski and Lynnette Stamler had more positive results.3 The researchers found that all of the participants recognized the undesirability of teenage motherhood and talked about being “too young” for a baby.

It may be too early to dismiss the Baby Think It Over program entirely because none of the studies evaluated the pregnancy rates of teens who participated in the program compared to similar teens who did not participate. It’s relatively easy to say “I am too young to have a baby,” but the true test of whether Baby Think It Over works would be if it motivated teens to take the steps necessary to prevent becoming pregnant-either delaying sex or using birth control.

References

1. Krawewski J, Stevens-Simon C. Does Mothering A Doll Change Teens’ Thought about Pregnancy?. Pediatrics. 2000, 105(3).

2. Somers C, Fahlman M. Effectiveness of the “Baby Think It Over” Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. Journal of School Health. 2001, 71(5)

3. Malinowski A, Stamler L. Adolescent Girls’ Personal Experience With Baby Think It Over Infant Simulator. MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing. 2003, 28(3).