Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reflecting on the Breast Milk Baby Doll Controversy

This summer I heard about a new doll that was causing an uproar, The Breast Milk Baby.  Now, I know that breastfeeding is a hot button topic.  This post is not meant to offend anyone.  I personally am pro breastfeeding, but I understand that it is a very personal decision for each mother based on many variables according to each individual’s situation.  Most of my point for writing this particular blog post is to consider how toys we provide for our children inform their playtime and how that will later inform their life choices. 
If you haven’t heard about or seen this doll, it is just another version of a baby doll that is electronically designed to simulate functions of a real baby, in this case breastfeeding.  The child wears a halter style top with flowers on it that have sensors in them that make the doll move its mouth and make sucking noises.  Some argue that the doll will make little girls grow up too fast or that children don’t need to learn how to breastfeed.    
Kids Intuitively Play Make-Believe
One thing that intrigued me was how little some people seem to know about how children play.  Much of a child’s play is pretending to be a grown up.  I don’t have to do any scientific research to know that.  They play dress up, putting on clothing modeled after adults and using props that help them role play.  They pretend to be firefighters, doctors, dog groomers, shop keepers, farmers, hairdressers and waiters at restaurants to name only a few.  They play “house”, by pretending to cook and clean and mow the lawn.   And they pretend to be parents by modeling their own parents.  We give children toys that are small versions of the real thing that they use as props while they pretend to be grownups.  That’s what they do.  This playtime is actually really important to their development.  I read about an experimental preschool program called Tools of the Mind.  In these classrooms the teacher would facilitate imaginary play scenarios that would encourage the children to extend the time they spent playing pretend.  Alix Spiegel did a piece in 2008 on NPR’s Morning Edition entitled “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”.

 It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline…self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.”
Will they grow up too fast? Or will they grow up to be pro breastfeeding?
There are many dolls on the market that come with bottles.  Does anyone get on the morning news and disparage the toy companies for hoisting formula on the next generation or rushing children into adulthood too quickly?  I think it is an example of how our society views breastfeeding as taboo.   In our culture many feel embarrassed when a woman nurses her child in public.  It shows that our society is unaccustomed and unsupportive of one of the most natural acts of mothering.  I know as a new mother I considered pumping a bottle to take with me, not because I was uncomfortable nursing my child, but I didn’t want to make others around me uncomfortable.  I’m glad that I didn’t make that a regular practice.  What a lot of extra work for me and stress on my child who was used to nursing, and not used to bottle feeding.
What would change in the next generation if children were provided with playtime accessories that encouraged them to pretend to be nursing mothers?   Would the next generation of mothers feel more empowered to nurse their babies?  The children who are playing house today will be raising children of their own when they grow up and will be making these decisions.  I started wondering: what are we providing for them during playtime today that will help them make an informed choice in the future?
When my second child was born I knew that my first born would be very interested in all that went with caring for this little brother.  I was very open with him that his new little brother would eat milk from his mother’s breast just like he did when he was a baby.  I didn’t evade the issue I was just matter of fact about it and didn’t make it into a big deal, it was just life.  I have a newborn he eats only his Mama’s milk right now.  Wherever we go – if he gets hungry his Mama feeds him.  No big deal.  To clarify, I did care a bit that I don’t make people around me uncomfortable.  Not so much that I never left the house or only fed my baby breast milk from a bottle when in public.  But I did sew a nursing cover that strapped around my neck and gave me privacy while being courteous to those around me. 
Natural Parenting Baby Doll Accessory Set
available at
My son, like many big brothers and sisters, has a doll, (we call it “Junior” since when he received it the only name he could think of to name it was his own). When I bathed the new baby he bathed Junior.   When I rocked the new baby Junior was rocked.  When I went out with my baby I would often use a baby carrier.  A friend of mine had made her daughter a mini version of her carrier.  What a great idea!  I made one for my first born so he could carry Junior.  I used cloth diapers so I made Junior one and my son asked me to make two because if he wanted to pretend one was dirty he’d need a clean one to put on.  After seeing this breast milk baby doll on television and the controversy it generated I wondered: If I had a daughter wouldn’t it be nice to have a child sized nursing cover too.  As I’ve said in a previous blog post I’m not super enthusiastic about toys that do all the playing for the child, but playtime accessories that encourage children to play pretend and help launch their imaginations, that I can get excited about. 

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