'Daddy Dolls' Comfort Military Kids

Dolls comfort most, but the voice recorders inside can be upsetting.

June 5, 2008 -- Five-year-old William Fisher thinks about his dad every day, and William misses him a lot.

"He just started screaming, crying tears pouring down his face, and I said, 'What is it?' And he said, 'I just miss my daddy,'" his mom, Cassity Fisher, recalled.

His dad, Staff Sgt. Shane Fisher, was deployed to Iraq four months ago, leaving behind his wife and their four children in Virginia.

But on the morning before he left, Shane Fisher helped create a special memento, a gift for each child that he hoped would help bridge their many miles and months apart -- a Daddy Doll, complete with a full-length picture of Fisher in uniform and a voice recording. Each recording was personalized.

"He actually did them the day he left, so it was an emotional time for him," his wife said. "You can kind of hear his voice crack a little bit in some of the recordings."

Approximately 1.2 million children belong to families with active duty military personnel; 40 percent are under the age of 5. The stress of separation, the disruption in routines, the anxiety the at-home parent feels can all have a serious impact on a young child.

"William has actually gotten a little more aggressive with other children," his mother observed.

According to such experts as Lynette Fraga at Zero to Three, stress has an impact on very young children.

"What we know about brain development is that infants and toddlers do experience changes physiologically when they experience stress," she explained. "That stress and distress can affect their development and healthy growth now and beyond."

These Daddy Dolls are one solution. They're the brainchild of two military moms, Tricia Dyal and Nikki Darnell, who make them in Nikki's basement as a way to keep the deployed parent in the mind of the child.

Daddy Dolls and other objects or traditions can help kids deal with the absence of a parent.

"They hear their daddy's voice on the phone, but here was daddy's voice right here with them, and a picture of him, and something tangible," Cassity Fisher said.

Experts say that children under the age of 1 might become confused or even upset at hearing dad's voice come from a doll, but the soothing presence of another significant adult makes all the difference. And for most kids, an object with an image of a deployed parent can bring comfort or help them express anger or sadness.

One military family traced dad's hand and put it on the fridge so that the kids could experience his trademark "high five" when they did something good. Another mom created a quilt with a photo of dad sewn in.

Build-a-Bear and other companies let customers fashion their own doll, some with voice recordings. And, of course, thousands of servicemen and servicewomen connect with their kids through the Internet and over the phone. These connections are critical, especially for young children who do not have the verbal skills to express their feelings.

"Even though you may not believe that your 7-month-old or your 3-month-old remember the separation, they remember it emotionally," Fraga said. "Those relationships are important to them."

For more information for military families, click here to check out Zero to Three's Web site.