Meet YouTube’s community of fake moms.
I’m going to show you a video, but I want to warn you about it first. It’s one of the weirdest and most disgusting things you’ll ever see. If you don’t want to watch it, I understand, but you should still read on because we’re about to dive into the seriously bizarre world of pretend parenting.
OK. Get a drink of water and let’s move on.
You hopefully noticed something about that diaper-changing video, if you watched it: it’s not a real child. And, thankfully, that’s not real poop. What you’re seeing is a “reborn baby,” a silicone simulacrum of an infant that retails for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Unlike most baby dolls, which are primarily marketed to young girls, these are typically sold to adult women.
Reborn dolls were originally designed for a good cause. The realistic infants are used as grieving aids for women who miscarried or otherwise lost a child. They were also brought into therapy for people suffering from dementia who were mentally stuck in a time when they were raising young ones. Their realistic appearance helped simulate an actual child better than a store-bought baby doll could.
These things are incredibly realistic, too. A New Jersey police officer broke into a parked car last summer to rescue one, even performing CPR on it before he realized what it was.
In 2016, reborns made the news when reality TV star and perpetual tabloid fodder Courtney Stodden was photographed with one after her miscarriage.
She told Us Weekly “It’s been surprisingly healing having him here with me. When I hold him, I feel incredibly calm. He offers a soothing effect that I need at this point in time.”
Soothing isn’t necessarily the word that comes to mind when I watch that video, but to each their own.
Things started to get weird when reborn dolls began to be adopted and “raised” by women who couldn’t have kids for other reasons. Eventually, people started buying them just to have them. And now we’re at a point where YouTube videos of artificial babies are getting millions of views.
Multiple women have created video channels devoted to their reborn babies. And they’ve built huge audiences who love to watch them “parent.”
Some of the biggest reborn channels on YouTube have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. They tune in for dolls getting dressed, changed and running through their bedtime routines. Comments coo about how sweet the babies look, as if they were real children.
What really gets the viewers, though, are unboxing videos. Similar to the kid-targeted clips that show adults opening and showing off new toys, these videos introduce a new reborn baby to the world. Because these dolls can be customized to the buyer’s specifications, each one is different. These YouTube “birth announcements” are richly emotional experiences, serving to introduce a new character into the drama of parenthood.
One of the most interesting things about reborn doll “parenting” is that most of the women who do it don’t stop with just one or two dolls. They keep acquiring more and more, assembling a Duggar-sized family of artificial children. As the novelty of one doll wears off, a new one can simply be cycled into its place. This is also important for maintaining an audience so they don’t get bored with the same old babies.
Everybody gets abuse on YouTube, but reborn enthusiasts are targeted for unusually large amounts of vitriol. The comments sections under their videos are a battleground between fans and haters, who just can’t grasp the idea that women would spend their free time caring for imitation infants. Many major reborn accounts have started typing a disclaimer under every clip?—?“yes, I know these dolls are not real.”
It hasn’t seemed to help.
The reborn doll industry is a fascinating one. Because they’re a niche product, there’s no “big company” that produces them. Instead, a network of artisans around the country painstakingly manufactures them one at a time, often to the custom specifications of the buyer. The number of therapeutic buyers is now dwarfed by hobbyists.
These dolls are obviously serving a need, and it might be a genetic one. Studies of other primates have shown pretty conclusively that female animals are drawn to baby dolls. Chimpanzees even make their own “babies” out of bundles of sticks and grass and play-nurture them.
The thing about babies, though, is that they grow up. Eventually you get to stop changing diapers and waking up for feedings at night and enjoy the other wonders of parenthood. The “mothers” of these reborn babies will never watch their kids take their first steps, or say their first words. They’re stuck in this perpetual dependence of infancy.
For some, that’s not a problem. I spoke to Sabrina, who made the video we started off with, on how she got into reborns.
“I was 13, almost 14 years old. I was looking on the internet after a Baby Think It Over doll, but instead I found a website where they sold reborn dolls, and I fell in love.”
Baby Think It Over dolls are realistic dolls with built-in electronics that they give high school students in health class to scare them away from premarital sex. They cry to be fed, changed and cuddled. An onboard computer measures your response times and tattles on you to your teacher.
The whole point of these things is that they’re a huge pain in the ass. So to want one recreationally is pretty unusual.
Unfortunately for Sabrina, Baby Think It Overs aren’t sold to the general public, and you have to buy a couple dozen at once. So getting a reborn seemed like a workable substitute.
Sabrina launched her YouTube channel three days after getting her first doll. It blew up rapidly, and now she has nearly 200,000 subscribers. Her family of reborns has swelled to 15 dolls, each one starring in their own video series. They arrive, are unboxed, introduced to the other babies, get a few videos about their routines and then pushed aside for a new, fresh baby to replace.
Sabrina does hope to make the transition from silicone parenting to the real thing. “I know I will. But my boyfriend and I are still young. So we’ll wait another year or two.”
Parenting is a struggle, but it’s a struggle with a fantastic reward: seeing your child grow up into a healthy, happy adult. Reborn dolls transform child-rearing into a zero-stakes performance, where if things ever get too tough you can just put the infant into a Tupperware and hide it in the attic.
Reborns were designed to help people cope with the trauma of losing a child. Instead, they’ve turned into a way to transform parenting into a mediated, consequence-free experience. I can’t help but wonder what kind of parents these women will be, once they hold a real baby for the first time.