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Realistic baby doll no bundle of joy

November 28, 1996

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

The piercing scream broke her sleep.

Groggy and annoyed, 15-year-old Naomi Pike got up to attend to the baby, knowing that if she didn't, it would just keep crying and wake up everyone else.

The fact that it was a doll, not a real child, didn't make much difference at that point, since the South Hagerstown High School sophomore knew she couldn't just turn it off.

The way the realistic doll is designed, Pike had no choice but to keep turning its feeding plug as long as it kept crying.

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At least, she knew it would be someone else's problem the following night, when life skills teacher Carolyn Walker would let another classmate try motherhood or fatherhood for a night.

As for dealing with a real baby, Pike said she doesn't plan on doing that for another 15 years.

"It was everything I expected it to be," said Pike, who said she'd planned to put off motherhood before the experience. "It was aggravating. It made me not want them more."

That's a typical reaction, said the four Washington County life skills teachers who started using the specially designed dolls this fall.

"I don't think they realized how unpredictable a baby would be, how much time it would take to tend to it, and how it changes their lifestyle," said Boonsboro High teacher Michele Bonbright, who so far has restricted her students' baby duty to school hours.

The expensive, high-tech dolls - dubbed "Baby Think It Over" - are designed to wake teens up to the responsibilities and stresses that come along with having a baby of their own, said Eugene "Yogi" Martin, supervisor for physical education, health education/life skills and athletics.

The goal is to promote abstinence, which is the thrust of the county's sex education program, until students are ready to accept the responsibilities of parenthood, he said.

"Hopefully, in the long run, if this works out, we'll have fewer pregnancies," Martin said. "It's all tied together."

Other Maryland counties have used the dolls with success, said Martin, who hopes to expand the dolls' use to other county high schools if the four test teachers give them a good report.

"We think we'll add some of these doll babies next year as the interest grows," he said.

All Washington County sophomores are required to take a one-credit course that gives them half a year of life skills and half a year of health education, Martin said.

This year, life skills teachers at Boonsboro, Williamsport, South Hagerstown and North Hagerstown high schools are using the dolls to supplement the parenting unit curriculum, he said.

Because there's only one doll per school, it's impossible to make caring for the doll a requirement, said teachers, who have been taking volunteers.

Willing students need a permission slip from parents, assuming responsibility for the $250 doll, teachers said.

The response has been so strong among Bonbright's students that she had to draw names to choose who would participate.

Once the student is given the doll, they can't turn it over to someone else to care for because the feeding plug used to stop the baby from crying is securely attached to their wrist, she said.

The dolls cry randomly, for varying durations, Bonbright said. Students are required to insert the feeding plug in the baby's back and keep turning it until the crying stops.

When the doll is returned, teachers can get a printout detailing how the doll was treated, including instances of abuse and neglect, said Williamsport High teacher Michele Gosnell.

Neglect would mean the doll wasn't attended to within a minute of starting to cry, said Gosnell, who said the doll's computer records how many times the baby was left crying and for how many minutes.

Abuse would include hitting, dropping and shaking, she said.

While it's not perfect, the doll gives students an idea of what it's like to be responsible for a real baby, Gosnell said.

South Hagerstown High teacher Carolyn Walker believes the dolls are more beneficial to students than the regular dolls or bags of flour normally carried around during the parenting unit.

"It gives them a lot to think about," said Walker, who thinks the shrill, random crying is the key difference.

North Hagerstown teacher Rebecca Petrie said her doll came with a defective plug that wouldn't stop the crying.

Although that's been fixed, Petrie thinks the students who dealt with the defect got an even more realistic parenting experience.

The babies have sparked interest among both male and female students, teachers said.

E.J. Daymude is one of the many boys who have volunteered to care for the doll.

"I just wanted to see what it would be like to have a kid and know how much responsibility it would take," said Daymude, 15, a sophomore at South Hagerstown. "I don't want it to wake me up at night. That's the only thing. I'm worried because I'm a deep sleeper."

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