A doctors' group Wednesday called for the cancellation of a television reality show in which babies are handed over to teenaged couples to give the teens a dose of child-rearing responsibility.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry released a statement Wednesday calling for NBC to pull the series "The Baby Borrowers," which is based on the same-named popular British TV program. The show includes five teenaged couples who take on the challenge of being caregiving adults for three days to first infants, then toddlers. As the story progresses, the teenagers will care for preteens with pets in tow, teenagers and senior citizens.
The parents who volunteered their children for the show stayed in the house next door to the teenaged couples, viewing the interactions on a monitor. The parents were permitted to intervene at any time, and the teenagers also were supervised and aided by a nanny.
Despite its reality show status, producers of the series say "The Baby Borrowers" was designed to teach rather than tantalize. And it had its fair share of viewers: When it premiered June 25, "The Baby Borrowers" garnered about 8 million viewers, ages 18 to 45, and was the 11th most-watched show, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But the idea that teenagers who are not trained in childcare are being left with 6- to 11-month-old infants has outraged child psychology experts.
"Children between 6 to 11 months old are in the throes of developing attachment to their primary caregiver," said Dr. Joan Lubey, associate professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine and chairwoman of the Infant Preschool Committee for the AACAP. "We would never recommend separation."
Child psychology experts say the fact that babies have not yet developed a sense of object permanence — specifically, the knowledge that their primary caregivers exist even when they are not in sight — lies at the center of many of their concerns.
The babies' developing sense of attachment may cause them to cry in their parents' absence. An extended period of separation — three days, for example — could be traumatizing to a child, producing stress and anxiety.
"Infants don't fully understand when that attachment isn't there and what the reason might be," said AACAP president Dr. Robert Hendren. "It might affect how well the infant[s] construe themselves. It could even affect the parent."
Hendren said early trauma from prolonged separation may be burned into memory, and children may experience something like post-traumatic stress.
Though reactions to separation vary from infant to infant — some may be more or less calm, or feel different amounts of attachment — the consensus among experts is that the longer the separation lasts, the more likely it is that lasting damage is done.
"That lesson has been taught to us over and over again," Hendren said. "To do this for a reality TV show just seems like the Roman Colosseum."
Richard McKerrow, executive producer of "The Baby Borrowers," is not concerned that participation in the show will be mentally damaging to any of the show's participants.