July 3, 2008 -- 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."
Mama, Don't Go
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."
The Kids Are All Right
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.
Rigorous screening and support protocols were employed both before and during filming, McKerrow said. He said the screening included psychological analysis of the children to see if they had reached appropriate developmental milestones, how attached they were to their primary caregiver, and how well both the children and parents would handle the separation. Parents were not compensated for participation.
"We take the mental and psychological health of the contributors in all our programs incredibly seriously," McKerrow said. "We only were able to do it, and we would only do it if the parents believed in the educational nature of the idea.
And many people, particularly young adults, are latching on to what the show has to say. McKerrow said that many of the teenaged couples who applied to be on the show came from broken homes, possibly in a subliminal attempt to do better than their parents did, thus illustrating the importance of good parenting and how challenging it can be.
Experts lauded the show's educational efforts toward young adults, but Hendren suggested having teens shadow real parents — changing diapers, waking up for feedings, being interrupted in the middle of a meal — in order to experience life as a parent without sacrificing the bond between parent and child.
While McKerrow said such a practice might not make compelling television, the safeguards in place for the children and their families, as well as the educational component of the show, compensate.
"I think we've found the balance making a fantastically appealing television program," McKerrow said. "This series is reaching teens in Britain and America and tackling a really important issue."
As pregnancy rates remain high, both in Britain and America, and about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, proper parenting remains a hot-button issue.
Lubey acknowledged that parents, particularly working parents, are routinely separated from their children during the workday.
More than six in 10 children are cared for regularly by someone other than their parents, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, and some can be as young as 6 weeks old.
However, Marcie Young, deputy director for the American Federation of Teachers and director of the Center for the Childcare Workforce, pointed out that most childcare and preschool arrangements are not continuous over several days.
"It's a very different model," Young said. "A teenager taking care of a child for a 72-hour period of time, who doesn't have the expertise, knowledge and background of a childcare provider, is very different."
But along with teen "parents," the presence of nannies, an on-set psychologist and real parents who visit sometimes several times each day mean that there is no lack of attention for the children on the program.
"The Baby Borrowers" has gone through two successful cycles in Britain and has recently finished filming in the United States. Though McKerrow, who also produces "Britain's Missing Top Model" featuring disabled women, said there are no plans as yet to do another cycle, he says he would love to.
But the practice of using real infants remains a deal-breaker for experts.
Lubey, chair of the AACAP's Infant Preschool Committee, said, "I don't know that it would have any kind of irreversible effect, but it's not something you want to experiment with."