Study: How Couples Play With Baby Dolls Predicts Their Parenting Style


The way that couples interact with a doll filled with rice can predict future parenting behavior, a new study has found.

Researchers at Ohio State University asked 182 couples in the third trimester of pregnancy to play with the doll - consisting of pajamas filled with 7lbs of rice and a green fabric head - treating it as though it were their future child.

The participants exhibited similar behavior when they were videotaped interacting with the doll, and then caring for their own baby nine months after giving birth.

'The extent to which couples support or undermine each other’s interactions with the doll predicts their co-parenting behavior a year later,' Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of human sciences who co-authored the study with doctoral student Lauren Altenburger, said in a press release.

According to Dr Schoppe-Sullivan, some of the couples had a positive attitude, complimenting each other on their parenting style with both the doll and the child.

'With the doll they might say "You’re going to be such a great dad." After the birth of the baby, their talk would be very similar: "You’re such a natural,"' she said.

However, those who expressed negativity around the doll were also critical of each other when the baby arrived.

'They might say things like “You’re not going to hold the real baby like that, are you?”' she said.

The research took place in the couples' homes, where an assistant acting as a nurse presented the doll to each couple.

During each five minute session, the participants played with the doll alone, then with their partner, and then discussed the experience.

Dr Schoppe-Sullivan tells MailOnline that some couples laughed and 'looked a little embarrassed' when they were initially presented with the doll. 

But, she says, 'For the most part, the silliness faded and they were able to get into the situation and take it seriously. '

Researchers later viewed the footage to examine the expectant couples' levels of cooperation, playfulness and family warmth, as well as the structure of the play and the extent to which they showed intuitive parenting behaviors.

The study's authors hope that their research will help resolve potential conflicts for future parents.

'When parents fight and undermine each other’s parenting, the child suffers,' Ms Altenburger said, adding: 'If we can identify couples who may have problems with their co-parenting before their baby is even born, we may be able to intervene.'

Dr Schoppe-Sullivan says that even though she believes that the co-parenting relationship begins to develop before childbirth, she was still surprised by the study's results.

'It still amazes me that five minutes of play with a doll can predict co-parenting behavior with the real infant one year later,' she says.

'The association between prenatal and postnatal behavior is modest in size, but it is definitely there. I plan to use this doll-play situation in my future research, because I think it really provides a unique opportunity to watch families develop from the earliest stages,' she adds.

The study was conducted as part of the New Parents Project, which is examining how dual-earner couples adjust to becoming parents.