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The nursing doll arrives on the U.S. toy scene amidst controversy

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

A controversial toy is about to cross the Atlantic and make a burpy, ahem, bumpy, landing here. It’s a baby doll which imitates a human infant’s breastfeeding. It comes with a special halter top (for the little girl playing with her doll) with two flowers positioned where nipples would be, and makes suckling sounds when its mouth is brought close to sensors embedded in the flowers.

This doll also comes with a wallop of outraged statements by critics who deem it inappropriate as a toy for young children.

Honestly, I was not sure where the acrimony was coming from in a world which has long accepted peeing dolls, and even pooping ones. Seriously, people, we are talking pooping here. Not that there is anything wrong with having a bowel movement – so how is it that a nursing doll is somehow more “obscene” than an excreting one?

A random scan of opinions indicates that the nursing doll is seen as somehow speeding up the sexual maturation of little girls playing with it.

“While I wholeheartedly recommend the idea of breast-feeding,” writes Dr. Manny Alvarez on Foxnews.com, “I worry that a toy like this may speed up maternal urges in little girls who play with it. Pregnancy and child rearing both require maturity and understanding. That’s why we wait until children are in middle school to introduce sex education. You wouldn’t teach it to a first grader.”

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Wow. How did breastfeeding pretend-play suddenly equal sex education? I very much doubt that small children associate sexual activity – if they are even clear on the concept – with nursing. Frankly, as an adult mother who breastfed her baby, I don’t tend to associate these two myself. Breastfeeding was an activity singularly stripped of sexual overtones. Rarely have I felt less “sexy” than when breastfeeding.

But I digress. The point is that the “sexualizing” charge I see used against the nursing doll reminds me of the “sexual” prism through which many adults – erroneously – view normal childhood activity. Freud, of course, believed that children were born sexually un-repressed, displaying, during much of their early childhood, an infantile sexuality. What a steaming pile of baby poop. This view is not at all unrelated to the child molester’s charge that it was the child who made him do it – because of the child's “sexy” behavior.

Let’s be very clear about this. Children behave and play in all sorts of ways that are pleasurable to the mind and body which we, badly socialized adults, are in danger of labeling “sexy.” They are not. If we find sex where it is not, then clearly the bias – and the perversion – is ours.

Little girls have been watching their mommies nurse their younger siblings for hundreds of thousands of years, and they continue to do so, without becoming an army of adolescent mothers themselves. They have also been watching their mommies performing household chores, eating, dancing, and sleeping. And they have used these observations in their pretend play – cooking, serving tea, making beds, making baby doll go potty – in order to practice the life skills of an adult.

No, this does not mean that a little girl is going to want to nurse a “real” baby in lieu of a pretend one, just as watching a lot of cooking is not necessarily going to make her a “premature” cook, or a “premature” waitress serving tea, etc. Young boys begin pretend-shooting from a very early age, and though some peace-minded parents may be up in arms about it, that protest is just as misguided.

Because boys like to shoot, period. More specifically, they like to pretend-shoot, and they pretend-kill heaps of victims in the course of their childhood war plays. Most importantly, they understand that it is just pretend, and they can perceive the silliness of the adults who object. The vast majority of them do not grow up to be maniacal spree shooters. The greatest harm can come from neurotic, repressed parents who forbid them to play in this way.

If I have anything against the nursing doll, it is what I have against all mechanically activated toys glutting the market today. I see no real reason why a child needs all the props to pretend-nurse a baby doll. Little girls have been pretend-nursing their dolls and teddy bears for hundreds of thousands of years, and they did just fine. I have no idea how this doll enables a child to nurse “better.” On the contrary, I think it leaves less to the imagination, which, in the long run, is to the child’s disadvantage.