A bundle of joy on a doorstep. A baby swaddled in a blanket looking up from the arms of the person holding it. But this baby is not a newborn child who will grow up as part of a normal family. This baby is a doll created using man-made fabrics and costing hundreds of dollars. But for many – including TV personality Courtney Stodden – it fills a heartbreaking need.
These extremely lifelike creations are called reborn dolls and, as their popularity has surged, a debate has sprung up around them. The dolls have the look and feel of a young baby with soft skin and rosy cheeks. Some even have a heartbeat and can appear to breathe.
Each one of the dolls is handmade and they range in price from $200 to several thousand dollars. Creating them has become a craft with artists and designers making the one-off works as pieces of art. Painstaking work is gone through to perfect the personality of each doll, with each owner able to dictate the look and feel of the doll.
Indeed, this choice allows imaginations to run wild. They are made using silicone or vinyl, and some designers go to extreme lengths to ensure that they look as real as possible. One artist discussing the process, for example, explained that they plant over 20,000 strands of hair into the doll’s head to make it truly lifelike.
Delicate tools are used to create mottled skin and coloring, which the buyers believe will bring the doll to life. Shaylen Maxwell is a maker of reborn dolls as well as an artist. She told The Globe and Mail, “I’ll add details like stalk bites or little blemishes or capillaries and veining. It really transforms from an inanimate object of parts and vinyl to a real baby, that feels real.”And the trend is a growing one. Indeed, many artists report getting multiple enquiries every week for new dolls.
And there’s no doubting that the dolls are exceptionally realistic. In fact, in one incident a police officer broke into a car left in the sun and began giving mouth-to-mouth to a reborn before realizing his mistake.
The people who own these dolls take comfort in their lifelike qualities – because they have no real baby to cuddle. Whether it be due to a miscarriage or a stillbirth, many of these owners just want to hold a baby in whatever way they can – even if it’s through a reborn doll. And this was exactly why celebrity Courtney Stodden bought a reborn doll, following a miscarriage in 2016.
It was thought that parents-to-be who had suffered a miscarriage would benefit from holding a doll as they came to terms with their loss. Moreover, this theory seems to have been borne out and many women have come forward to talk about their close bond with their reborns. The dolls offer them a unique form of comfort through their grief.
The response from buyers when they first cradle their doll is an emotional one. Clips online of reborns being unwrapped are a unique sight. Some of these “moms” record themselves discovering the baby, holding it for the first time and expressing the range of emotions that new mothers might go through. For those watching the videos it can be heartwarming – or it can be challenging to accept.
The dolls have also been used to help people with dementia to cope with the confusion of the world. Some older people become trapped in their memories of past times and the presence of a baby can have an unrivaled calming effect. Indeed, the joy that the dolls bring cannot be underestimated for some people with Alzheimer’s.
However, there are increasing numbers of people who collect the dolls as a hobby – and some of these individuals own dozens of them. Dressing and taking the dolls out in strollers, these people express a bond with the dolls reflecting that between a mom and her real newborn child.
The dolls provide the best part of parenting according to some owners, who want to be able to coo over a tiny baby. Some, though, go a step further and carry out the same rituals with the dolls that they would with a real baby. Buying clothes and taking them out are activities that many admit to doing.
However, not everyone has sympathy for these apparent expressions of maternal instinct and criticism has come from some quarters. These individuals believe that some owners have an unhealthy attachment to their dolls. In fact, some people have gone so far as to admit to being disgusted by them.
Some women describe the experience of taking the doll out in public – and for it to be mistaken for a real child – as being a particular highlight of the reborn experience. This type of use, in which the doll becomes a “prop,” has been highlighted by psychiatrists as an issue.
And, though the dolls are wanted for hugely personal reasons, some critics remain skeptical of their healing power. Indeed, the mental welfare of some women using the dolls as a basis for social interactions has sparked particular concern. Psychiatrist Sue Varma told ABC News that the dolls may be a problem if they become “more than just a hobby.”
Meanwhile, owners, calling themselves reborners, defend their choices. Amanda is a reborner and she explained to The Globe and Mail, “They bring you peace. I do have anxiety and something caught my eye with the reborns and when I hold one it’s just like a real baby. You feel peaceful.”
The rise in interest in reborns has led some buyers to hide their identities. Although passionate about ordering, receiving and caring for their reborns, many owners – generally women – would rather not speak out publicly due to the backlash that others have experienced. Most purchases are made online and are enjoyed behind closed doors.
Reborners argue that caring for their dolls is a hobby that is not doing anyone else any harm. The enjoyment that they get from buying the dolls is, in their eyes, no different to other collectors’ hobbies.
Research has shown that holding a baby causes hormonal releases in the body, which can make for a highly emotional experience. It’s not yet known, though, whether the same thing occurs when someone cradles a reborn. Anecdotally, however, it seems clear that the high of caring for another being can provide a unique comfort for women unable to demonstrate love for their own real babies.
Whether the dolls provide comfort and enjoyment or arouse fear and disgust, reborn dolls appear to be here to stay. And with their cherub-like faces and dainty hands and feet, they have the power to offer something that some people desperately need.