Sunday, February 27, 2011

RealCare® Babies: A Teen Pregnancy Deterrent?

I currently teach child development in a mostly white, socially privileged high school. I have also taught child development in an urban setting with mostly black, under privileged students. Within the child development classroom, both groups have one common bond: they all want to have a baby.
No, they do not want to have a real baby but a RealCare® Baby, a baby doll crafted from “soft vinyl” that simulates newborn behavior from birth to three months old. These baby dolls come in an assortment of ethnicities within which there is a choice of male or female and the students cannot wait to take one home. This is the main reason why a 14 - 15 year old, largely female population with the occasional token male, whether privileged or under privileged, takes the class.

Their quest to take home a baby begins when they enter the classroom. Unfortunately, these students must wait almost six months, three months shy of a normal pregnancy to achieve their goal. Along the way they engage in many activities that help them to acquire knowledge regarding developmental theorists, types of families, female and male sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, and how to get pregnant. More knowledge is acquired about how to have a healthy pregnancy, developing fetuses and birth defects, how babies are born, and what happens to newborns after birth. I say knowledge is acquired because a student must have at least a B average to take home a baby. This is incentive to learn as almost no one gets below a B. Once the baby has been “born” in class, the students finally get to pick a baby to bring home for the weekend.
The RealCare® Baby of choice is named by the student and programmed by the educator to “turn on” at 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon and to “turn off” on Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. when they are returned to school. The simulation is based on real babies’ schedules. Realityworks, the company that invented the RealCare® Baby, observed and recorded the timing and duration of activities such as eating, burping, urinating, defecating, and the amount of time the babies just needed to be held and comforted during a 24 hour cycle. A real babies’ 24 hour schedule is then programmed into a RealCare® Baby. If the RealCare® Baby is in use longer than 24 hours, a combination of schedules are used to prevent memorization of the schedule. There is actually a different cry used for each activity taped from a real baby and if the students pay close enough attention, they begin to discern the difference between the ‘need to be fed’ cry and the ‘diaper change’ cry. The educator can program easy, medium, hard or random baby schedules, allow for babysitting, or program quiet hours if necessary. There is an infant wardrobe, car seats, Snuggli baby carriers, and even a tab that can be pinned to a bra to simulate breast-feeding. 
To have a successful stimulation the student must:
  • NEVER drop the head.
  • Decide why the RealCare® Baby is crying...Does it need a diaper change? To be fed? Burped? Or just held and rocked?
  • Begin care within a minute or so or the RealCare® Baby starts to cry louder.... and louder.
  • Hold The RealCare® Baby during feeding as the simulator can tell if the bottle is propped.
If all goes well, the student returns the well-cared for RealCare® Baby, a report is generated depicting how well the student responded to the baby’s demands, and the simulation is finished. It is to be hoped that the teenage has had a stressed filled, sleep deprived, anxiety ridden weekend that will result in the obvious conclusion to ‘wait until you are older to have sex so you will not get pregnant and have to take care of a baby.’ 
All of this as a deterrent to teenage pregnancy: I am not allowed to teach about birth control or to bring in a speaker from Planned Parenthood. Realityworks is a research-based program. My question remains - Does the RealCare® Baby experience really discourage teens from getting pregnant?  Wouldn’t comprehensive sex education, which includes birth control information, be more effective? 
Dr. Peggy Drexler wrote about a cultural time slip in the 50’s when females began acquiring female sexual independence but lacked access to birth control. (The birth rate in 1957 reached a historic high of 96.3 per 1,000.) Sexual freedom was liberating but sometimes the girls ended up “in trouble.” The disgraced family would arrange an intervention in which the culprit was removed from the community and their life, along with their child were taken away. Nowadays teenage pregnancy is no longer a secret. It has risen from hidden shame to primetime programming beginning with Juno, which purported a happily ever after ending. Glee’s Quinn Fabray carries a baby to full term with no apparent consequences, a Juno reinforcement, and Teen Mom’s search for the next batch of actors has many girls asking what they can do to score a role. Legislating media content is no longer an option. Sex sells and these days media espouses increasingly more sex with inconsistent illustrations of condom use to anyone who has access to a screen.
While the CDC (2009) reported that birth rates for teenagers ages 15-17 declined in 31 states from 2007 to a historic low across all age groups, ethnicities, and races, the U.S. still has one of the highest overall rates of teenage births in comparison to other industrialized nations. 
Some facts associated with teen pregnancies:

$9 BILLION: Annual cost of teen childbearing to federal, state and local taxpayers in lower taxes paid and greater demands on public services.

25 PERCENT: Teen moms who go on welfare within three years of the child’s birth.

34 PERCENT: Teen moms who don’t earn their high school diploma or GED by age 22, compared to 6 percent of childless girls.

LESS THAN 2 PERCENT: Moms with babies before age 18 who earn a college degree by age 30.   

66 PERCENT: Children of teen moms who graduate from high school compared to 81 percent of children with older parents.

66 PERCENT: Families started by teens that live in poverty.
And what comes as no surprise given the current political climate; the current House-passed 2011 Federal Budget Bill is one giant step backwards in the fight to reduce teen-age pregnancy: 
  • “Family Planning: The bill entirely eliminates funding for the title X Family Planning program, which received $317 million in FY 2010. This program helps support family planning and reproductive health services to more than 5 million people annually at 4,500 community-based clinics. Grantees include state and local health departments, hospitals, community health centers, and private nonprofit organizations. Services provided include the full range of contraceptive services, as well as screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer and HIV screenings, education, and other preventive services” (Doyle, 2011).
  • “Teen Pregnancy Prevention: The bill also eliminates funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (which received appropriations of $110 million in FY 2010). This program makes competitive grants to public agencies and private nonprofit organizations to support evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts” (Doyle, 2011).
Clearly we would be better off preventing teen-age pregnancies. I teach now in a predominantly white community within a privileged socioeconomic status. While no single program model is appropriate for all communities or teenage mothers the Rand Corporation reported that the choice of programs should reflect “community attitudes, dispersal of students, and number of pregnancies.” Culturally in my community, the teenage girls do not want to end up pregnant but they do want to enjoy sexual agency and they do want the experience of being a mom for a weekend. Why not use the RealCare® Babies to provide a pleasant interactive learning experience about caring for a newborn and let me teach about how to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy through the use of birth control?
Check out the following sites for additional information:               


  1. So, in regard to this topic, I find myself having some questions about this process.

    For example, is three days really enough time? I worked for a school district where the kids had to have the babies for 7 days. It was a double edged sword kind of thing, I think. One reason why it was kind of awful was because the kids in the class actually had the babies on during school hours and they would cry and go off during classes. That sucked for other educators on school campus, BUT the young men and women with the baby simulators were definitely embarrassed every time that baby went off. And at the end of the 7 days, those teens looked awful. Most of them were tired, hair all crazy, wearing sweatpants to school and basically swearing at the babies every time they started crying. Because my only exposure to these dolls was the 7 day process, I’m just curious to know the impact of only having the baby for 3 days where a student could potentially not be as inconvenienced by it due to not having the obligation of school.

    My other question is what would you recommend for schools that can’t afford the technology of those dolls? I know that folks have had the egg or bag of flour thing, but I wonder if you have any insight as to better or more effective ways to deliver this kind of message to schools that don’t have the kind of access to such amazing technology?

    Also, I’m curious to know how you process the weekend with your students. Do they have an assignment, or do you all discuss how things went? Just looking for that examined experience piece.

    These dolls are definitely cool though. I didn’t even have one and it made me not want to have kids. :)

  2. Hi Vicki!
    Your post brought back memories from my high school in Lancaster County where we had “Baby Think it Over.” Taking one of the babies home was an option for extra credit in my 8th grade Home Economics class. This class was an elective where one could learn more about cooking, nutrition, sewing, and childcare than in the required course for 7th graders where we spent half a semester cooking/baking and the other half sewing and learning CPR. Naturally, the elective class only consisted of girls. Any 8th grade boy who willingly chose cooking and sewing over wood and metal shop would have been teased mercilessly, unfortunately.

    We were required to take care of egg babies, and this included keeping a journal about our experiences as well as making little diapers out of paper and having teachers initial the diapers. I don’t recall the exact amount, but there were a required number of diapers we had to “change” a day.

    I was FURIOUS when my parents refused to allow me to have a weekend with the “Baby Think it Over.” All I wanted was some extra credit and to see what the fuss was all about! However, after hearing horror stories from classmates and their parents, I decided maybe it was best that I didn’t take part in this activity. My parents weren’t against the idea or reasoning behind “Baby Think it Over,” they just saw no reason for anyone in my family to be inconvenienced over the weekend when I already had an A in the class to begin with.

    I can understand how having to take care of this realistic baby could deter a young woman from desiring a baby, but I am still skeptical. Becca, you brought up a great point- in real life, you don’t get to hand over the baby after just a couple of days, having a child is permanent and not just an experiment! And shouldn’t boys be required to take part in this as well? On a personal note, I felt that both “Baby Think it Over” in addition to the egg babies (not to mention the show “Teen Mom” on MTV) almost celebrate having babies rather than heed warning. Girls in class were SO excited to dress their egg babies and take their little plastic babies around with them- they were proud and loved the attention they received from having a baby with them! Mixed messages? What do you guys and gals think?

  3. Vicki,
    Good idea for a post! As far as I know, we have never discussed this approach for teenage pregnancy prevention. I agree with Robin and Becca in that I definitely have mixed messages about it.
    First of all, I think we need to try and remain objective about the topic of teenage pregnancy. Not everyone thinks its a bad thing and not every unplanned pregnancy has had a horrific impact on the woman (or man's) higher education trajectory, career, financial status, and/or health.
    With that said, I think teaching young women and men about the realities of pregnancy is important. Additionally, I agree with your opinion that popular culture has glorified teenage pregnancy and since we know the media is extremely influential, it is imperative that we as sexuality educators provide good (unbiased) information to our students.
    I think Becca and Robin both had good points that the 'experimental' aspect of the assignment takes away from the goal. The worst that could happen in this scenario is that you get a bad grade, and if you're only targeting the 'good students' to even take part in the project then we can make all sorts of assumptions about their organizational skills, cognitive abilities etc and this project may not be the most effective for that group. I also agree with Becca that a week of taking care of the babies may be more effective than a weekend.
    I have a few questions: How about the kids with the worst grades get the babies? Why are the kids with the best grades getting babies, because they're expensive or because the teacher fears the kids may get distracted and fall behind on their school work?
    I like the idea of this project and totally get the purpose behind it, but its difficult to do this and not be allowed to teach about contraception! So your school administrators are like, 'hey give them a bunch of babies and get them to realize how shitty is to take care of them and then they wont want to get pregnant' but...they're still going to have sex and so bridging the gap between 'I dont want babies' and 'this is how im going to prevent having babies' is sooooo crucial to this lesson.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your post and look forward to hearing other people's reactions to the babies!

  4. Vicki,

    So i was pretty curious about this Real Care baby thing, because i have never heard about it, i have heard about the egg thing (which seems kind of pointless) so i consulted youtube. There are LOTS of videos on youtube about these kids and their real care baby weekend assignment experience. after watching these videos i agree with Becca about a weekend not being long enough. in many of the videos the teens said that they pretty much just sat around waiting for the baby to cry to that they could make it stop. they did not seem terribly burdened with with, in fact, one girl actually BOUGHT baby clothes for it! other kids decided to throw it around for some laughs. I was actually surprised that they didnt figure out a way to 'cheat' with it, and i actually looked that up and as far as i can tell this baby is pretty sophisticated, because there doesnt seem to be any way to cheat with it. After watching the videos, i am wondering if there is research about the impact of this baby experience, does actually reduce teenage pregnancy?? or does it just give these teens a chance to goof around? and if a teen had a good experience with it, are they then even more likely to have a baby, now that they are confident that they can handle it? i see a lot of flaws in this project...

  5. the rate of teenage pregnancy is currently rising. health education is in demand.

  6. Great topic to post about Vicki! I am wondering if anyone remembers the show "The Baby Borrowers" which was on NBC? Here is the link:

    On the show, real teen couples are given real babies and children to care for over a set period of time. The result? Tons of stress and seemingly terrified children. The shows aims to "prove" to these teens that they aren't ready to be parents by having them deal with all the realities of a child at each developmental age. While there are some real learning moments, I'm not sure that the connection is always made for the teens. During several episodes that I saw, teens said things like "well, it would be different if it was our baby." Honestly, they are probably right. Is being dropped into a strangers home and given a stranger's kids to care for a real simulation of parenthood? Just weird in my opinion. What I never understood is why the actual parents of these babies and children would volunteer to let strangers care for their children?

    Anyway, my point is, we seem to go to a lot of out there lengths just to avoid teaching comprehensive sex ed to teens.

  7. Vicki this is a truly insightful and thought provoking post. Also I am glad you shared a detailed account of how the RealCare babies operate, since I have never had the opportunity to provide care for one. It sounds like based on your final question that the goal of using the RealCare baby is what needs to be changed and researched. If the research already supports some success rates of using the RealCare babies then it could be beneficial to conduct studies to see if pregnancy rates decrease more when the curriculum incorpoates comprehensive sexuality lessons as well.

    Another great point that was made in this blog was the limitations or lack of condom demonstration included in mass media. I believe that television shows and movies are missing a huge opportunity to be sex educators. Even if a condom wrapper or mention of its use was included in every intimate or sexual experience produced their would be more reinforcement for safe sex. Instead media demonstrates sex as something that often happens in the heat of the moment without being accompanied by a condom, contraceptive, or barrier method. I am all for celebrating sex on the big screen; however, the director and writers choose to, but I cannot help seeing it as an experience that could be used as a friendly reminder to wrap it!

  8. Wow Vicki. This makes me wonder what the half-life of effectiveness is for the experience of having the baby for a few days and protecting yourself in a sexual situation. The longer it is between those experiences, the less impact the baby experience is going to have, whether is is 3 or 7 days. I keep thinking about how amped up the connections are between the midbrain (emotional cortex) and the frontal lobe (reasoning and cognition) in teens. Which thoughts and actions win when they are in such competition combined with all the emotions that come with sex? I can see the synapses that carry the info about Realcare babies experience atrophying as the synapses that carry messages about sex getting stronger.

    Also, I'm totally with Ashley on the total lack of responsibility that could (should?) be taken by the mass media. Maybe, one day....

    ~Rachel Girard

  9. Hello,
    I was reflecting on this post and it made me think about the time I had to take care of the doll. In the high school I went to (In Caguas PR) we had to care for the doll in 11th grade when we were 17 years old. I remember it was horrible! We had to care for it for two weeks even weekends and if we attended a school party we had to find a sitter and have the sitter call the teacher to confirm she/he were taking care of the doll. We were required to have all of the baby things and also we had to take the doll to school. Every day the teacher would check the baby. Every detail was evaluated, how clean, happy, comfortable, and properly dressed the doll was. My doll cried allllll the time drove me crazy. I think this whole experience initiated some really intense discussions and some of the girls failed because they stopped taking care of the doll. I remember some students were angry and others were frustrated, I was cranky because I was not getting much sleep. I think it was an amazing assignment, but this type of assignment should be given in high school closer to senior year to have some impact on teenagers. Conversations about sex and children come up, and consequently safe sex is seriously considered. I know many of my friends were on the pill after that, the boys got condoms and even showed them to the teacher. It was funny to all of us but it was dead serious, WE DID NOT WANT TO HAVE CHILDREN AT THAT AGE!!!! My point is this type of assignment can work, but the educator needs to make the connections for the teens. WE cannot just give them the doll and expect them to not want children. Instead educators need to implement lesson plans that cover a range of topics that teenagers might not think of on their own. By critically analyzing these topics teenagers can start making more educated choices.

    Posted by: Karla Diaz

  10. I went to public school and never received any sex education, so the only times I saw the egg, flour, or baby-doll projects were on TV, so it was great to read about someone who really does this lesson. I think it is interesting that your school puts you in a tough position – teach teens about the negative consequences of pregnancy, but never address birth control. In light of your options, the RealCare Baby does sound like a good way to teach this lesson, but as others have said, I have to wonder if it really is a deterrent. As you said, students come into the class because they want to opportunity to take home the baby.

    You didn’t talk about students’ reactions after their weekend with the baby, but I can’t help but wonder if the experience serves simply as a temporary scare tactic. Like campaigns that talk about the horrors of drunk driving, the physical consequences of drug/alcohol/cigarette use, and images of STIs, the result is only temporary behavior change. Students are scared by these presentations in the moment, but the fear does not last. From what I understand, this kind of affective learning is less successful in the long term than a more comprehensive approach – for this reason, as Rachael suggested, a project like this needs to ensure that the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain are making meaningful/lasting connections during the weekend experience. As others have suggested, maybe that would require having the babies for a longer period of time (of course that brings on numerous other issues such as interfering with classes, etc).

    I’m with Ashley, some more research is really needed to see how effective the use of the RealCare Baby is over the long term, and a study to see if there is/what the difference is between programs that also include comprehensive sex ed programs v. those that do not. I also appreciated Gigi’s perspective – clearly the curriculum is limited by the school’s desire for you to teach teen pregnancy as an undesirable occurrence, but there are people who do not see it as such. What can this lesson do for those students who intend to get pregnant no matter what, for whom there is no deterrent?

    Overall, this is a really interesting teaching method that I have not heard discuss anywhere else. I’m glad you chose it, Vicki!

  11. I think they have taken a right decision .Adopting real care baby is the right choice for learning parenting skills since real care baby react like a real baby

  12. 13/02/2012 - Hi Vicki, I came across your article while doing research. I would love to know more about how you implemented the programme. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa and would love it if you could share your learnings as we are about to embark on a pilot project to reduce the number of teen pregnancies.
    My email if you wish to share is
    Thank you, looking forward to hearing from you.
    Regards. Bernie