Breast-Feeding Doll Too Real for Comfort?
A Toy That Mimics Breast-Feeding on Girls' Chests Is Causing an Uproar
By LAUREN COX and JAMIE BLANCO
ABC News Medical Unit
Aug. 7, 2009
American girls own dolls that pee, dolls that suck on a bottle, dolls that burp or sit on a potty -- and all are accepted as appropriate by most adults.
But a new doll that breast-feeds has pitted expert against expert and mom against mom over whether this toy has gone too far. None can seem to agree if the Spanish-made Bebe Gloton doll is natural, useful or disgusting.
The doll is currently sold only in Spain, though Berjuan, the company that makes the toy, said that it will be marketed in the United States next year. The doll allows children to imitate the act of breast-feeding by using a special halter top that comes with the toy. The halter top is made from a colorful material with two flowers positioned where nipples would be.
When the mouth of the doll is brought close to a sensor embedded in the flower, the baby makes motions and sounds consistent with suckling.
Cesar Bernabeu, director of sales and marketing for Berjuan, wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com that psychologists and teachers were consulted in the development of the toy, and that it has garnered the approval of the Asociacion Pro-Lacttancia Meterna de Espana, a pro-breast-feeding organization in Spain.
"We realized that the reaction was so positive with the girls when they were imitating their moms and saw that they react to the doll like it was a little sister," read Bernabeu's remarks, translated from Spanish. "Their faces of happiness said it all."
However, a viral video demonstration on YouTube has been met with remarks that the doll is over-sexualizing young girls, or forcing girls to grow up too quickly, or teaching young girls about a natural part of motherhood.
The company responded to the concerns in their email. "Breast-feeding is completely natural; it is not something that we have invented ourselves, it is something that is done all around the world," Bernabeu wrote. "There are studies that discuss the benefits of breastfeeding, and there are associations around the world that are ... supporting this."
But not all mothers agree.
"There are just things that I think kids are too little to understand," she said.
Ewen worried that if her two boys, ages 4 and 6, saw the toy, they would be confused because neither had been breast-fed.
Yet Ewen admits she has seen many young girls mimic the behavior after watching their mothers nurse their infant siblings.
"They don't understand they just see other moms doing that. Let kids use their imagination and play with a doll and not deal with what it can do," Ewen said. "There's no need to turn it into something that's anatomically correct. Not at this age."
Why Does Breast-Feeding Doll Breed Controversy?
Other mothers see this as a perfectly normal toy not worthy of such controversy.
"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 then the doll," she said. "It's a doll. If you don't like it, don't buy it."
Even pediatricians, child development and toy experts can't agree on whether the nod to support breast-feeding in the Bebe Gloton (loosely translated as baby glutton) 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.
Psychologist Jay Reeve, CEO of the Apalachee Center in Tallahassee, Fla., said Bebe Gloton's realism goes too far.
What Psychologists Think of the Breast-Feeding Doll
"Of course, children have played 'parent' with dolls for centuries, but this new twist seems to focus not on what babies are like as much as jumpstarting a focus on breast-feeding," Reeve said. "I'm always a little disturbed by toys, games, or products that have the impact of accelerating childhood identification with being a full-blown adult."
Yet toy expert, professor and author Diane Levin, said the problem with Bebe Gloton isn't the breast-feeding. Levin has a problem with any toy that limits the play to a single activity.
"It's not good for children to have everything structured for them," said Levin, co-author of "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids."
Levin has witnessed girls pretending to breast-feed dolls -- especially after seeing their mothers nurse siblings -- and thought it perfectly natural. But she said play, including boys playing soldiers, needs to be spontaneous and initiated by the child.
"As kids get used to instructive toys, they need more structured toys," Levin said. "We take the creativity away."