Several years ago, Lisa Robertson created a Facebook support group to discuss the ups and downs of parenthood.
It’s a sanctuary where people from all over the world make pregnancy announcements, trade advice on infant feeding and share ultrasound photos. Some meet for in-person playdates and mail each other holiday gifts. The connections provide support during a time when many feel alone.
But Robertson is not a mom — not to human babies.
The 37-year-old from Aberdeen, Scotland is the owner of seven lifelike “reborn dolls,” which she says have changed her life for the better.
“They don’t grow up, leave you or die,” Robertson tells TODAY.com.
Collectors like Robertson are known as "reborn doll moms," a growing but misunderstood community that showers unconditional love onto handmade dolls, either as hobbies or a full-blown lifestyle.
While reborn parents are often labeled by critics as delusional, regressive, or plain sick with baby fever, experts say that sometimes, "reborn parenting" can be a healthy coping mechanism.
Unwrapping them was my equivalent of being handed a newborn baby. That’s the closest I’m ever going to get.
Lisa Robertson on her first reborn doll "twins"
“Holding them instantly calms me down, especially when my OCD flares up,” Robertson says. “I know they will always be there for me. I can tell them everything and they won’t judge me.”
Robertson began collecting the dolls after a series of traumatic events, including her parents’ death. “All of a sudden it was just me, my cat and my hamsters,” she says. Robertson says the particulars of her OCD diagnosis prevents her from having children, something that was always a dream for her.
“My routines and rituals are so specific that it wouldn’t be fair to bring a child into my world as they wouldn’t have a normal life,” she says.
What are reborn dolls?
Mass-market reborn dolls start at around $30 and custom-made dolls can cost upwards of $20,000.
Reborn dolls are weighted baby and toddler-sized figurines, sculpted from silicone or vinyl and hand painted with attention to details like skin texture, birthmarks and facial expressions. Extras like battery-operated “breathing” machines, human or animal hair or baby-like scent (usually a blend of baby powder and infant laundry detergent) enhance their realism.
My babies have helped me to heal my grief.
Many people purchase the dolls following a miscarriage, child death, infertility, the empty nest period or other loss. People say the dolls can awaken positive memories, satisfy caretaking desires or act as a conduit for grief. Some find that rocking or “bottle feeding” dolls can assuage stress or distract from negative thoughts.
For Robertson, learning about the dolls “was like a light in the darkness.”
Robertson paid an artist $300 to hand paint a set of premature-sized infant twins.
“Unwrapping them was my equivalent of being handed a newborn baby,” says Robertson. “That’s the closest I’m ever going to get.”
Robertson’s dolls have names, ages and scripted personalities. “The twins get into lots of mischief. Daisy is always laughing and Chloe is more reserved,” explains Robertson. “Gracie likes to think she’s grown and the two eldest look after the babies.”
She cuddles and talks to the dolls, changes their diapers, positions them in a bouncy seat and pretends to bottle feed with a solution made from hand lotion and salt water.
Robertson is not delusional. Although she calls herself a reborn "mom” and the dolls her “babies,” she does not believe they are real. She also doesn't think the dolls keep her suspended in longing for motherhood. In fact, she says, reborn dolls have helped her move on with her life.
"My babies have helped me to heal my grief of not being able to have kids,” she explains.
Robertson says she is on medication and has done cognitive behavioral therapy. "I've always been honest with my therapists about my babies," she says. "They were interested to know how they've helped me."
Robertson’s Facebook group “Reborn Parent Roleplay” has more than 2,000, mostly female, members and fields approximately eight requests daily. No one under 16 is admitted and storylines involving infant harm or severe illness are prohibited.
“Someone once wrote that their baby had cancer and I removed the post,” says Robertson. “We allow babies to have the sniffles but we’re not discussing death. We have a responsibility to protect the members who lost children.”
Many doll owners use specific lingo, according to Robertson: “Reborn pregnant” are people working with artists on a doll or waiting for one to arrive; “reborn labor” signifies the 24-hour time period before someone receives a doll. “Reborn adoption” can be used for second-hand or toddler dolls; “fostering” happens when people purchase a doll for temporary use, then place it for “adoption."
I lost my best friend over this. ... Because dolls are a big part of my life, it became hard for us to talk.
Certain phrases are discouraged, such as “reborn miscarriage,” to not upset people with a history of pregnancy loss, and even the word “doll.”
“Although we know they are not real, ‘doll’ undermines our connections," says Robertson.
Robertson’s friends have pretended to “babysit,” and she’s also used a virtual childcare center. Facebook daycare or preschool groups allow people to “register” dolls for the day, issuing end-of-day reports on fantasy field trips, snacks, naps and photos of arts-and-crafts projects.
Other Facebook groups like Rainbow Reborn Pediatric Hospital "mend" broken limbs and "diagnose" dolls with ailments. "We go through the process similar to an actual hospital," group admin Ashley Bauer, who also runs a virtual reborn doll preschool group, tells TODAY.com. "We say that we're taking vitals, ask about symptoms and give a pretend diagnosis."
Not everyone understands the reborn lifestyle.
“I lost my best friend over this,” Robertson says. “She turned nasty and stopped coming by or video chatting to not see or hear about them. Because dolls are a big part of my life, it became hard for us to talk."
Is it healthy to have a reborn doll?
"Role playing itself is an essential part of being human," Beverly Hills-based psychoanalyst Bethany Marshall tells TODAY.com. "Children play with dolls or treasure their blankets as transitional objects to represent the parent, before eventually separating from caretakers."
“Some coping mechanisms are adaptive and move our life forward — hugging a doll to de-stress or to keep the memory of a late child alive, sharing a love of dolls with those close to us — and others are maladaptive, used to avoid real relationships or keep grief at bay. Loss is something we all have to negotiate."
People tend to think that either something is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’ and ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy,’ but life is not like that.
Dr. Katherine Shear
One way to tell if a preoccupation with inanimate objects is healthy, says Marshall, is if it leads to real attachments versus eternal fantasies.
“Real relationships — in the real world — come with potential heartache, pain and responsibility,” adds Marshall. “For some women, ‘mothering’ dolls allows them control over variables in the relationship versus responding to the needs of an actual baby and fostering their development and growth.”
Some reborn doll collectors are dealing with grief, over a death or another kind of loss.
"People tend to think in dichotomous ways, that either something is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’ and ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy,’ but life is not like that,” Dr. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry and director of The Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University, tells TODAY.com.
Grief and recovery look different for everyone, Shear says: “Grief and loss stop us cold in our tracks. We have to find a way to accept the loss and the fact that we will probably be grieving the loss forever, but not in the same way over time.”
In a few instances, scientists have studied mourning through dolls.
A 2013 case report published in the peer-reviewed journal “East Asian Archives of Psychiatry,” detailed a Chinese widow who was diagnosed with depression and built a life-sized doll in his dead wife's likeness.
“He claimed that he believed the doll was not alive and remarked that making the doll was a 3-dimensional form of commemoration instead of the 2-dimensional form of photos,” wrote study authors. “He felt that the doll brought him closer to his wife.”
After two years, the man made a “full recovery” in his mental health, donating his wife’s clothing and discarding the doll, the study reports.
You can’t tell me, ‘It’s just a doll.’ To me, it’s something more.
Denise Mack, who has 18 reborn dolls
Study authors wrote that the patient's seemingly “bizarre” actions did not interfere with his daily functioning.
Reborn dolls are not part of traditional doll therapy, a practice that can alleviate agitation and anxiety among patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
According to George Grossberg, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Saint Louis University, who is not familiar with reborn dolls, such therapy can be effective, particularly for patients who are mothers.
"It may bring back those warm and fuzzy feelings of caring for a baby,” he tells TODAY.com.
‘Ew, that’s creepy’
Florida grandmother Denise Mack’s reborn dolls remind her of early motherhood.
“I have one child and I wish I’d had more,” Mack, a former city bus driver, tells TODAY.com.
Her 18 dolls “fill an emptiness,” she says. Mack started collecting dolls after her mother died. “I could have turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, but I turned to dolls,” she says. “I know they are not real but I treat them and dress them as though they are real children.”
Mack wears her dolls in a baby carrier while out in public. “It’s a hug,” she says, adding that her younger grandchildren love playing with her dolls.
In a daily routine shared on her TikTok account "vinyl_mom1019," Mack prepares bottles and supervises potty time. Offline, Mack also participates in reborn doll meet-ups, aka "playdates," at restaurants or the park.
Mack is open about her hobby with anyone willing to listen.
“Overall, people have a positive reaction but I take negativity like, ‘Ew, that’s creepy,’ with a grain of salt,” adds Mack. “I don’t fight anyone’s opinion. But you can’t tell me, ‘It’s just a doll.’ To me, it’s something more.”
Doll making is ‘sacred’ work
No one understands better than Julia Kristal, a doll artist in Arizona.
“Knowing that my art brings joy and healing is so rewarding. It feels very sacred,” she tells TODAY.com.
She knows people judge.
“People say, ‘This is weird and these women need help’ but everyone is entitled to their own approach to grief.”
Some have sent me photos of their stillborn babies to model their dolls after.
Julia Kristal, Reborn doll artist
Kristal says placing an order can make customers emotional.
“Some have cried or sent me photos of their stillborn babies to model their dolls after,” she says. “Many have contacted me years later to say, ‘This doll really helped me through my grief.’”
Dvora Entin, a licensed clinical social worker, says people with pregnancy loss often desire a physical representation of what’s missing.
“Especially if there are no photos, hand or footprints or locks of hair,” she tells TODAY.com. “How does one put their hands on something to connect to their story?”
“Some women create an altar-like experience that represents their baby with framed photos and keepsake boxes,” she says.
Not all reborn doll owners are grieving a loss; some collect for fun.
Jess Ellis of London, who owns 11 dolls, started collecting at the start of the pandemic. “I worked from home and it was really lonely,” Ellis, 27, tells TODAY.com. “I wanted something to take care of.”
She and her fiancé, Avery, considered getting a dog; however, reading about reborn dolls online evoked Ellis’ nostalgia for a childhood doll named Annabelle.
Ellis purchased her first reborn doll.
“I’d spend ages posing it, changing its clothes and doing photo shoots,” she says. “I’ve had full-blown conversations with my toddler doll, who has really expressive eyes. It’s nice to talk ‘at’ someone.”
“When I’m upset, the dolls can be very comforting,” she says.
But Ellis doesn’t interact with her dolls every day, and can’t relate to the term reborn “mom.” Rather, she explained on her TikTok channel “Reborns of Jess,” she prefers “collector.”
Ellis and Avery don’t have children. “While I would love to be a mother, it’s a huge responsibility and we aren’t even sure it's possible,” she says, adding that she has polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can contribute to infertility.
During lockdown, Ellis was anxious about leaving home, so her fiancé bought a stroller for the dolls. Their first outing backfired.
“I was standing in front of a store waiting for Avery,” she recalls. “The employees congratulated him on becoming a dad and one came outside to say, ‘‘So this is why we haven’t seen you in so long!'"
“I froze and didn’t know what to say,” she recalls. “Avery told them it was a doll. I was so embarrassed that I never went back.”
Ellis compares doll collecting to another hobby: playing video games. “Why is it socially acceptable for me to role-play an assassin in a video game but it’s not to role-play being a mom?” she says. “Why target people who are literally hurting no one?"