Lifelike Dolls as Adult Therapy Tools

Lifelike Dolls as Adult Therapy Tools

There are ordinary dolls and then there is extraordinary dolls. I encountered the world of reborn babies- dolls so incredibly lifelike that I had to actually do a double take when looking at the pictures.

A few years ago I was looking for a doll to model some baby clothes that I made.
I found what I thought was a suitable match. When I received the doll, I became intrigued- it didn’t feel like any doll I had ever come across.

I took the name off the back of the neck and looked it up. The doll I had was named Sam by Phil Donnelly and it was painted and had rooted hair done by an artist. My model was actually a rare find; another has not surfaced in many years.

I joined a Facebook group so I could learn more.  I began a chat with an artist in Texas- she was actually painting a doll and asked to video chat- this way she could continue painting her doll as we spoke. This is when I learned about the purpose of these dolls.

Childless couples purchase these dolls as a way to have the parental experience.
Some actually boast proudly about being “reborn pregnant “meaning that they have a doll on the way. This gives them the opportunity to pretend to have the same symptoms and joys that carrying a baby brings to a real mother.

There are many who actually treat the doll as if it were a real baby taking them out in public. Some take their “baby “to church or to the grocery store or buckle them up in a car seat for a ride to the park. A few go as far as building a nursery in their home equipped with a crib and a changing station as well as diapers, clothes and fake formula for “feeding” them.

For those experiencing anxiety and depression these dolls are used as a way to soothe themselves. The dolls can help those who are suffering with autism to calm themselves by focusing on caring for a delicate baby. Dementia patients find a doll can actually assist in being able to recall what it was like to have children or be a child.

My most frequent customers are those who have experienced a miscarriage or infant loss. The reborn can sometimes be made in the likeness of their loved one. It’s a memorial baby to help them through the grieving process. I have spent many hours talking to people about the therapeutic effects of a memorial baby. Sometimes even toddler babies are crafted to mimic an older child.

Empty nesters purchase these dolls as a way to feel as if they still have children at home. A select few settle on simply collecting the dolls because of the realism or beauty. These adult therapy dolls can elicit oxytocin release and we know that the oxytocin system interacts with the dopamine reward system in the same manner as a real baby. Many view them as a surrogate child.

The moment that that the artist completes the baby it is “born” and a birth certificate usually describing the time date and nursery is sent with the doll. Usually a reborn baby is “adopted “from the artist’s nursery. The receiver generally looks forward to the “box opening “many artists place a diaper on the head of the doll to protect it during shipping this only enhances the anticipation of seeing their new arrival for the first time. Generally there is an included amount of baby things packed along such as a pacifier (usually magnetic) and a change or two of clothing.

Child dolls can be used to mimic parenting in health classes of high schools. Teenagers are equipped with a “baby “to give them a feeling of what having an infant is like. There are parenting classes that use them as tools to teach people how to diaper or care for their new baby.

Firefighters use them to mimic a real rescue. If a reborn baby is left in a car seat in someone’s car while they go shopping or leave it unattended there’s a very real possibility that an officer or passerby will bust the window to rescue them. An Oklahoma fire department had fireman rushing into a smoke-filled room to save a "baby" and ended up rescuing a doll.

Actors use them in place of a real baby. In the movie American Sniper one criticism of the Clint Eastwood film was instead of real babies the movie substituted dolls in at least two scenes. There is little medical research into the value of reborn dolls for grief. However dolls may act as transitional objects or items that help overcome a sense of loss or abandonment.

Perhaps it’s the idea of unconditional love? A “baby “who needs to be cared for. The infant needed to fill the empty arms of a grieving mother. Emotional therapy for those who desperately need it. There are myriad reasons for interest in these versatile soothing tools. Speaking for myself I have found an intense joy in being an artist who turns a blank piece of vinyl into a blessing bound to be loved.

Jennifer Wagner

Jennifer Wagner has been working with mentally and physically challenged adults and children and makes adult therapy dolls to help people suffering from infant loss, dementia, anxiety, depression and infertility. This is her second work published for Ariel Chart. Little Nuggets Nursery


  1. Never heard of this in my life. Makes sense to a degree and I can see how it can help people and be an artform. Thanks Ariel Chart for allowing different viewpoints.

  2. First I am hearing of this use of dolls. It is a unique field of endeavor. Helping people is not easy. Best of luck.

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