There have been baby dolls that cry and dolls that coo. Dolls that eat, drink, wet and even poop. The latest addition to the world of dolls that “do something” is a soft-bodied, battery-powered baby that lets little girls pretend they are breast-feeding.
A controversial doll that allows children to imitate the act of breast-feeding is coming to America. Berjuan, the Spanish company that makes the toy, last week announced plans to bring “Breast Milk Baby” to the U.S. market, starting with the ASD trade show in Las Vegas July 31.
The doll, which comes with a special halter top with two flowers positioned where nipples would be, makes suckling sounds when its mouth is brought close to sensors embedded in the flowers. But breast-feeding experts and moms are torn on whether the toy is natural, useful or disgusting.
Critics say the doll can over-sexualize young girls or force them to grow up too quickly.
“I heard people talking about it but, honestly, I thought it was a joke,” said Ilina Ewen, a writer for Deep South Moms and her own blog Dirt and Noise.
“There are just things that I think kids are too little to understand,” she said. “Let kids use their imagination and play with a doll and not deal with what it can do… There’s no need to turn it into something that’s anatomically correct. Not at this age.”
But the company and supporters say the toys can help teach young girls about the nurturing skills they’ll need later in life.
“I can’t believe what upsets people,” said Jessica Gottlieb, a mommy blogger and mother of a “school age” boy and girl.
Gottlieb has seen her own daughter mimic breast-feeding after watching her nurse her infant son. She thinks all the talk about how the doll sexualizes children says a lot about society.
“That they [critics] would jump from a breast-feeding doll … that you would take a child feeding and would automatically sexualize it says more about you than the doll,” she said. “It’s a doll. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”
Even pediatricians, child development specialists and toy experts can’t agree on whether the doll would be healthy for young girls.
“My take is that anything which reminds young girls that their bodies are something other, and more, than sex objects, is a very good thing,” said Dr. Ronald Cohen, medical director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, Calif.
“On the other hand, encouraging young girls to want to have babies at a very young age may not be so great,” said Cohen, who is also the director of the intermediate intensive care nursery at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University.
But mom-blogger Carrie Lauth doesn’t see a difference between encouraging adult play with a toy stroller or toy bottle and encouraging adult play with a breast-feeding doll.
“It’s definitely something I would consider buying for my daughters because I’ve purchased in the past items that mimic what I do, like little baby slings for their dolls,” said Lauth, a writer for Natural Moms Talk Radio.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea, I don’t understand why it’s a controversy,” she said.
That line — where playing parent meets the reality of parenting — seems different for each expert, too.
The $69.99 toy (currently available online only) has whipped up debate about the appropriateness of children playing “nursing the baby,” even spurring the creation of a Facebook page, “Against ‘The Breast Milk Baby’ Doll.” Two million of the baby dolls have already been sold in Europe.
Psychologist Susan Bartell, a contributor to babycenter.com, is “uncomfortable” with the doll in part because the 3- to 6- year-old kids it’s intended for “are not developmentally at a point where they think about their bodies in terms of nurturing a baby. This isn’t really something they should have to think about,” she says.
But Sally Wendkos Olds, author of The Complete Book of Breastfeeding, sees the doll as “a lovely way to introduce the topic to little girls who are interested and curious.”
Our society “has eroticized the breasts to such an extent that their true purpose has been forgotten,” she adds.
Lost in all the discussion about the doll’s cultural relevance is the fact that, at $69.99, it’s a pretty expensive investment for a toy that doesn’t do very much, says Marianne Szymanski, author of Toy Tips: A Parent’s Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices. “If you’re OK with your child doing this kind of play, you can do it for a lot less.”