Health & Wellness

Fake babies ease women's anxiety, sadness

While there has been no specific research on the phenomenon of women owning lifelike doll babies, I am glad to weigh in on the psychological underpinnings.

People often have a negative reaction when they hear about these lifelike babies, sometimes called “reborn” babies or “memory” babies.

It’s typical to think something is weird or creepy when it’s unknown, far from the norm, or common only to a different culture.

But there are cases when it is quite understandable for someone struggling with feelings of loss — possibly an empty-nester, a childless woman, or someone who has lost a baby — to fill the void with a realistic doll baby.

It’s natural for people to find ways of preserving memories of those they love — from making photo albums, to visiting gravesites to keeping an urn of ashes on the mantel. Everyone tries to vanquish death and the ravages of time.

But, can an inanimate doll — one so realistic as to look alive — really replace a living being? In many ways, such a notion feels like a page from the Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a disturbing thought to have something un-alive take the place of a real human — which is why such a conceit is often the basis for fantasy or horror tales.

The reality, however, is that people often face sorrowful issues in their lives. In many cases, they use denial to cope with the loss and the resulting anxiety.

This happens to empty-nesters, who may feel they no longer have children to take care of and struggle with what identity they now have left. It also may happen to childless women, whether they have chosen to remain child-free or are childless through happenstance. They may be OK with this until they hit menopause, when they realize there is no going back, and they will never have a natural child. At which point the finality of the door being shut to possible children may bring a flood of sadness.

And some are unfortunate enough to have lost a child — one of the most devastating things that can happen in any life.

What does the mind do when faced with a loss and a void so enormous?

Denial is one of the most prominent defense mechanisms. It’s not that these doll-owners think the doll is a real baby, but it affords them moments when they are comforted and can pretend they have a real baby, to themselves and to the world.

This is different from insisting the doll baby is real. It provides moments of relief and reprieve, when they can escape the stark reality of their loss, and instead have those familiar feelings of coddling a baby, cooing over it, and all those other nice moments that temporarily undo the harsh reality.

I would be concerned, however, if someone who lost a baby grew too attached to their doll baby. This could indicate their grief is not actually getting resolved. Having this kind of doll risks being almost too literal and concrete for them.

In some ways, purchasing such a doll is similar to replacing a beloved deceased pet with a new pet, or even fostering a child. I have heard stories of women who need to be needed, and who prefer monkeys as pets. Monkeys have great intelligence and many human qualities. They can be held and carried like a baby, and even dressed in real clothes. Like a baby, they are totally dependent. Unlike a baby, they stay that way. These are also ways of trying to cope with loss and undo the feelings of abandonment that come with it. These methods come with real responsibility and commitment.

  • Slideshow Photos

    David Moir / X02060

    To match feature BRITAIN-DOLLS/REBORN

    (Un)living dolls

    That silky hair, those delicate veins … at first glance, these infants could pass for the real thing. But they’re not. Tour the fascinating world of “reborn babies.”

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    (Un)living dolls

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    Reborn again -

    That silky hair … those delicate veins … at first glance, these sweetly sleeping, bonnet-and-bib clad infants could pass for the real thing. Called "reborn babies," the disconcertingly lifelike dolls are crafted in vinyl or made from a silicone material and have become popular acquisitions for doll collectors. The babies are also coveted by those who seek to fill a more emotional need: nostalgic grandparents, grieving parents, childless women.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Precision painting -

    Reborners say that the hobby began in the early 1990s in the U.S., although it has now spread around the world. Artists would take old dolls apart, strip the paint off, and then repaint. Nowadays, people use doll kits to create one-of-a-kind dolls that run in the $400 to $600 range, but can cost up to $4,000. Here, Fountainhall, Scotland-based reborn artist Deborah King carefully paints the nails of one of her creations.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Doll parts -

    Reborn dolls are painted several times to approximate the mottled appearance of newborn skin. The process starts with "veining," or painting the veins in before adding the flesh layers. After each coat of paint is applied, the doll has to be baked to make the color permanent. You might say the process gives new meaning to the phrase "one in the oven"…

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Baby hair -

    To approximate the fine texture of infant tresses, artists use mohair for the dolls' hair and eyelashes, attaching every strand individually with a special needle. The body is made from soft cloth and is weighted to make it feel as heavy as a human baby.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Seeing double -

    Reborn dolls are so lifelike that they are even used sometimes as body doubles on television programs. But the advantages to using the fake dolls are obvious: These tiny guest stars don't cry, soil their pants, or fuss when it comes time to get "dolled" up in the makeup room.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Buy, buy baby -

    Some dolls' bodies can be fitted with electronic devices that mimic breathing and a heartbeat. Others are made with warming pouches so they feel warm when held. But the dolls remain a niche product, sold over the Internet rather than mass-produced for retail stores.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Making babies -

    Reborn dolls are made and collected by an online community of enthusiasts. Here, Phoenix-based realtor, doll collector and reborn artist Lynn Katsaris poses with one of her creations. She has been making the dolls for the past nine years, and she says the hobby has evolved into a side business.

    TODAY / TODAY
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    Forever young -

    Doll collector Monica Walsh, 41, shown here with her doll Hayden, toldAOSFU98AQEWTASKFDNA0ADGAG2#@$A, "Buying these dolls is like buying a Michelangelo original painting. They are worth a lot because they are the customized, and there’s only one like it." Walsh says of her fellow doll collectors, "We never really grew up, and never stopped playing with dolls."

    TODAY / TODAY
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    'My Fake Baby' -

    Reborn dolls are the subject of a BBC documentary, "My Fake Baby," which profiles people (like the couple here) who have incorporated the dolls into their lives. Reactions to this behavior are mixed: While some people consider them to be works of art, or believe in their ability to provide "cuddle therapy" or to fill an emotional void, others find them creepy, unnatural or even morbid.

    BBC America / BBC America
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    Rockabye 'baby' -

    Sue, another woman profiled in the BBC documentary, is shown here watching over her reborn baby.

    BBC America / BBC America
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    Baby Lauren -

    She looks real, but Lauren is a "reborn" baby doll, as are all of the "babies" you'll see on the following nine slides. All were crafted by artist Deborah King in her home near Edinburgh, Scotland. King sells the dolls on eBay and maintains a gallery of her creations on her Web site, reborn-baby.com.

    Courtesy of Deborah King / Courtesy of Deborah King
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    Baby Natasha -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Sara Louise -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Katie -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Abigail -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Ellen -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Fairy Baby Bramble -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Helena -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Joshua -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com
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    Baby Summer -

    Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com / Courtesy of Deborah King /www.reborn-baby.com

For those who don’t want to have a commitment, a doll baby is “better” than a real baby. A doll baby comes with zero responsibility. It is an interesting transitional object — similar to the blankie a child drags around, or the stuffed animal she keeps in her backpack. It signifies a connectedness to home and to mother. In this case, the transition is between the real or imagined child they lost and the fact that life no longer contains that baby for them. For some women, such a transitional object eases them into ways of finding more external methods of dealing with their needs of caretaking and loving a being who loves them back. It is the concretized fantasy of getting unconditional love.

Unlike with a real baby, a lifelike doll comes with no real-world mess — no diapers, no smells, no feeding, no crying. These babies, unlike real ones, do not grow up into toddlers. And as soon as the toddler toddles away, there’s a whole different psychic dynamic. You now have a creature growing, changing, moving toward independence. It will, clearly, need you less and less. Entwined with a doll baby is the knowledge it will never grow up, never leave you, never disappoint you, never say ‘I hate you!” It will never be a complex being unto itself. In that way, you, the "mother," will never experience loss.

There’s something else about babies. For many women, whether or not they want children, a baby personifies their genital prowess. It symbolizes their femininity and female power.

If you walk around with a baby — or a doll that looks like a baby — everyone stops to admire it. The word “cute” was made for babies! So having one produces positive attention, which is often enjoyable, like when you are dressed up and people admire you. Exhibition is a part of all of us, so it is natural to want attention. For a woman who is struggling to feel good about herself, the baby can provide reassurances in the form of others admiring your “progeny.”

This kind of lifelike doll is not for everyone, of course. But, if someone feels bereft, it could be another tool that is oddly helpful. There are many ways a person may find to cope with loss, sadness and anxiety, and these reborn dolls offer one solution.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

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