Is there such a thing as being too young to learn to breast-feed?
The Breast Milk Baby doll, from Berjuan Toys of Spain, is specifically designed to teach little girls how to breast-feed an infant, and learn about the bond between mother and child.
But, it has generated a lot of controversy among parents and child development experts in the U.S. Last week, Berjuan Toys announced plans to bring "Breast Milk Baby" to the U.S. market for the first time, starting with the ASD trade show that occurred in Las Vegas on July 31.
According to the company website: "The Breast Milk Baby will revolutionize our nation's attitudes to good infant health, while letting little girls share in the wonder and magic of motherhood. The Breast Milk Baby lets young girls express their love and affection in the most natural way possible, just like mommy!"
The Berjuan Toys sells a number of baby dolls as well as the Breast Milk Baby. The Spanish-language version of the doll, “Bebe Gloton,” has been available since 2009. The doll has already seen success in Europe, generating more than $2 million in sales for Berjuan, since the doll was first released in Spain four years ago.
The Breast Milk Baby comes with a special halter top for the child to wear while “break-feeding” that has two flowers positioned where nipples would be. The doll works by making motions and suckling sounds when a sensor in its mouth gets close to the flowers, which also has matching sensors embedded in them.
But breast-feeding experts and moms disagree on whether the toy is natural, useful, further sexualizes children, or is just plain disgusting.
Some critics say the doll can over-sexualize young girls, or force them to grow up too quickly. Licensed clinical social worker Deborah Finerty-O'Brien says the doll may open a dialogue with children, one that parents aren't ready to have.
"It gives mixed messages about teaching young girls modesty and the rules that are coming about in elementary school about sexual harassment which is the big issue now," said Finerty-O'Brien.
But the company and supporters say the toys can help teach young girls about the nurturing skills they'll need later in life, and others say that it will teach children that breast-feeding is natural and positive.
"Breast-feeding is completely natural," said Cesar Bernabeu, director of sales and marketing for Berjuan. Bernabeu said the toy allows children to imitate their moms – a natural part of growing up.
"We realized that the reaction was so positive with the girls when they were imitating their moms and saw that they react to the doll like it was a little sister," read Bernabeu's remarks, translated from Spanish. "Their faces of happiness said it all."
That line – where playing parent meets the reality of parenting – seems different for each expert, too. Psychologist Jay Reeve, CEO of the Apalachee Center in Tallahassee, Fla., said the doll's realism goes too far.
"Of course, children have played 'parent' with dolls for centuries, but this new twist seems to focus not on what babies are like as much as jump-starting a focus on breast-feeding," Reeve said. "I'm always a little disturbed by toys, games, or products that have the impact of accelerating childhood identification with being a full-blown adult."
Yet toy expert, professor and author Diane Levin, said the problem with the doll isn't the breast-feeding. Levin has a problem with any toy that limits the play to a single activity.
"It's not good for children to have everything structured for them," said Levin, co-author of 'So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.'
Levin has witnessed girls pretending to breast-feed dolls – especially after seeing their mothers nurse siblings – and thought it perfectly natural. But she said play, including boys playing soldiers, needs to be spontaneous and initiated by the child.
"As kids get used to instructive toys, they need more structured toys," Levin said. "We take the creativity away.”
For me, the argument that this toy sexualizes girls is ridiculous – as breast feeding has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with nurturing. Despite rejecting that argument outright, I do have a concern: For me, this toy yet again further divides the sexes into stereotypical models of expected, very traditional social behavior. More than any other doll, this one specifically trains girls to grow up to be moms. In the past, little boys have played with dolls, but they will certainly learn that only little girls can use this one.
— The Curator