Thanks to a couple of Spice Girls and an All Saint, it's now cool to be pregnant. But a new craze from the States should help convince teenage girls that a baby is more than a fashion accessory. Martin Whittaker reports
It looks alarmingly lifelike. Hold it in your arms and the weight feels the same. The head flops back unless it's supported. And it cries. How it cries!
This is no mere doll. It is an "infant simulator'' called Baby Think It Over, America's weapon in the war on unwanted teenage pregnancies. Now it is catching on in Britain's schools.
Helen Bishop and Valerie Sims run Virtual Parenting UK - Europe's sole distributors of the simulator - from Helen's home in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Piled high in her sitting room are 15 of the babies (Valerie never calls them dolls) left from a consignment of 80 recent imports; the rest have already gone to schools. There are different ethnic models, male and female. The latest model, with realistic floppy head, costs pound;205 plus VAT.
In the US, schools have been snapping them up by the dozen. Over here, where budgets are tighter, they buy one or two. "But they are going out as quickly as we can get them in," says Helen.
Inside each baby is an electronic control which lets the teacher select the required temperament: cranky, normal or easy. Then the teenager takes the baby home, usually for 48 hours. If it is placed in the wrong position, it cries. If its head is not supported properly, or if it is roughly handled, it cries. Often it cries for no obvious reason.
Crying is stopped by the use of a "care key", strapped to a student's wrist with a tamper-proof strap. "It could want tending for 10 minutes, or half an hour," explains Sims. "They have to take it everywhere with them. If they go to McDonald's with friends, or to a party, or if they take a bath or a shower."
Afterwards a teacher can monitor the students' progress on a digital display on the electronics box. It shows whether the baby has been roughly handled, or not responded to quickly enough.
At Wycliffe Community College in Leicester, girls have been queuing up to take the "infant" home. "We have ordered a second one because demand is so great," says the college's vocational education co-ordinator, Sylvia Dernie. "There are an awful lot of girls who have babies within a couple of years of leaving, and they seem to get caught in the trap. So we thought it might be an idea to give them a taste of what it's like to be in demand all the time."
Baby Think It Over was invented by Rick Jurmain, an American scientist who worked at Nasa. When a television documentary showed American teenagers carrying either an egg or a bag of flour around with them to simulate caring for a baby, he remarked that they were poor substitutes as they didn't cry or awaken youngsters in the night. His wife Mary suggested he built something that did. Five years on, the infant simulators are used by schools, hospitals, churches and community organisations; more than 42,000 have been sold in the US. Fortune magazine selected Baby Think It Over as one of its products of the year.
"It's had an excellent response," says Mary Jurmain, president of Baby Think It Over, based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "Almost all the teenagers who use it say afterwards that they now understand it's a tremendous responsibility, and that they're not ready for it.
"Mostly they say they had no idea it would take so much time. They tend to think of a baby as something you can dress up and show to your friends."
Though Baby Think It Over is sold only for educational use, there are fears it might be regarded by teenagers as a passing craze, like the Japanese virtual pets Tamagotchi. After an article in a teen magazine, Virtual Parenting UK fielded calls from hundreds of teenage girls wanting to know where they could get one.
So far there has been little research into the long-term effects. But in one independent study in the US, 48 high school students were questioned on the impact of Baby Think It Over on their attitudes and beliefs about parenting. They were asked, "If you had done everything you could think of for your baby and it still persistently cried, do you think you would continue to be tolerant and understanding?" Before using the infant simulators, most believed they would. Afterwards, 83 per cent doubted their capacity to be tolerant and understanding, and three-quarters thought having support from a spouse would be important. "I think teenagers don't respond well to lecturing," says Mary Jurmain. "They want to experience things for themselves. This allows them to do that."
For more information on Baby Think It Over, contact Virtual Parenting UK on 01491 573085