Lifelike Doll May Actually Encourage Teen Pregnancies

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March 10, 2000 (New York) -- Taking care of a lifelike doll does not change teens' attitudes about pregnancy, according to a new study in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics. The new findings call attention to the need for more intensive, multi-tiered efforts to discourage teen pregnancy.

After caring for "Baby Think It Over" -- a seven pound, lifelike infant -- for three days and two nights, just 29% of 109 sixth and eight graders said they thought that caring for a real infant would be like caring for the doll, says the report.

The most recent statistics show that the teen birth rate in 1998 for ages 15-19 had declined by 18% since 1991. Still, more than four out of 10 young women become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in Washington, D.C.

Similar to a real infant, Baby Think It Over lets out a "loud, hard" cry every 15 minutes to four hours all day long. The baby can only be silenced by inserting a care key in its back. Only the designated caretaker has the key and it must be held in place from one to 30 minutes. Study participants also carried around a diaper bag for the duration of the study period.

Despite the fact that most teens found the doll difficult to care for, "little learning about the difficulties of parenting took place and [Baby Think it Over] had almost no effect on the student's childbearing intentions," report study authors Judith Kralewski, RN, MSN, CPNP, and Catherine Stevens-Simon, MD, who were both at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver when the study was conducted.

In fact, the more difficult the teen found doll care, the more likely they were to say it would be easier to care for a real infant, the study showed. Teens who perceive parenthood to be attractive may overlook the negative aspects of any parenting experience they have, study authors point out.

"We're disappointed with the results," says Carol Lambert, spokesperson for Baby Think It Over Inc. in Eau Claire, Wisc. "But the study only focused on the doll and not the whole program which includes different parenting activities such as budgeting and child abuse prevention exercises."

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According to Lambert, more than 1 million teen-agers have participated in the program, and other studies have shown it to be of benefit.

In this study, participating students filled out three questionnaires. The first questionnaire was administered before the experiment. It gauged the teen's background information as well as their feelings about parenting. The second looked at their feelings about doll care before and after the experiment with questions such as "it will be (was) hard to wake up at night and feed the doll" and "it will be (was) hard to get ready for school and care for the doll." The third series of questions addressed real baby care with questions including "my baby would be easier than (the same as) the doll because ..."

Before caring for the doll, 12% said that they wanted to be teen parents. Researchers found that after the experiment, 15% wanted to be parents. Of the participants, 17% of eight graders thought the doll was like real baby care, compared with 37% of sixth graders. But the sixth graders were more likely to think that real baby care would be easier, the study showed.

The authors write, "The results of this study suggest that during adolescence, pregnancy prevention programs that only try to discourage parenthood are apt to be ineffective. Therefore, it might be preferable to focus future research efforts on intervention strategies that ... help adolescents develop future-oriented goals that are more desirable than, and incompatible with, early childbearing."

Mariza Nightingale, spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, agrees with this approach.

"There is a lot of data on promising approaches, but there is not one single magic bullet that prevents teen pregnancy. It takes a sustained effort," she tells WebMD. Teen pregnancy prevention programs that help teens set and reach goals and encourage parental involvement for long periods of time can help.

"A lot of research shows that parents matter," she says. "Kids want to know what parents think and when there isn't a clear set of [parental] values expressed, other things seep in."

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Still, "teen pregnancy is on the decline and that's the good news," she says. "Teens are delaying sex or using [birth control] more so the rate is going down but we still have a much higher rate than other developed countries. We can't get complacent because there is a new crop of 13-year-old girls every year."

"It's really important to note that Baby Think It Over is a tiny piece of teen pregnancy prevention programs," says Monica Roberts, director of education and information at the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). "The idea of having teens care for an egg or a flower to learn what it is like to be a parent has been around for a long time," she tells WebMD.

But "there is no single approach to markedly reduce teen pregnancy in this country," she says.

Calling the Baby Think It Over experiment "an interesting approach," Tina Hoff, director of public health and information at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., points out that young kids don't usually make a conscious decision to become pregnant; it is usually unintentional.

Vital Information:

  • Taking care of a lifelike doll to discourage teen pregnancy may actually have the opposite effect, according to a new study.
  • The doll manufacturer says that the study only focused on the doll, and not the whole pregnancy prevention program, which has been shown to be successful in other studies.
  • Parental attitudes towards teen pregnancy, information about sexual health, and developing future-oriented goals that would be in opposition to having a baby are other factors that may be effective in preventing teen-age pregnancy, experts say.
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