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Science & Environment

Baby Simulator Doesn't Deter Teenage Pregnancies, Study Indicates

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Back in the 1990s, an American company came up with a new way to discourage teenage girls from getting pregnant and having babies - battery-operated dolls that are every bit as demanding as the real things are - crying at night, needing to be fed. Schools all over the world now use these dolls to teach teens how exhausting it is to be a parent, how not fun it can be. More than 20 years later, researchers in Australia have conducted the first ever study to check whether the dolls actually are effective. We reached the lead author of that study. Sally Brinkman is an epidemiologist at the University of Adelaide and at the University of Western Australia. Good morning.

SALLY BRINKMAN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What did the studies show?

BRINKMAN: Unfortunately, the studies showed that we found the exact opposite effects than what we had been hoping for. So the entire aim is that the students would think this is really not for me and think more seriously about contraception or, you know, delaying sex completely and that we would then see reduced teenage pregnancy rates.

And, unfortunately, that hasn't happened. It seems that having the access to the fake babies and such - the infant simulators - was something that was exciting for them. They enjoyed it, got a lot of attention and actually maybe provided them some confidence.

MONTAGNE: When it comes to the teenage girls who have the simulator babies, how many of them proceeded to give birth, have their own babies, compared to those who didn't have those babies?

BRINKMAN: Yes, more went forward with a - with their pregnancy to actually have a baby rather than to choose to terminate. So we both increased the teenage pregnancy rate and then, of those pregnancies, they were more likely to go forward with the pregnancy.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible that the reason more of the girls that had the simulation babies - is it possible that they enjoyed - they're teenage girls and they carried babies around for a while, and even though it's a bit of work or hard work, they enjoyed the feeling of being a mother?

BRINKMAN: Yeah, I mean, we don't exactly know why, but we delivered this program to over 1,200 students, so we have some indication of how, you know, students reacted to the program. Some really hated it. They didn't enjoy it at all. They wrapped the babies up in sleeping bags or put them in the spare room and closed the door and tried to, you know, keep them as quiet as possible, whereas other students really enjoyed it. And they, you know, became extremely attached to the babies, and they didn't want to give them back to the school. We had the extremes on either end, but in general, overall, most of the students enjoyed it. They found it difficult, but it was a positive experience for them. Families gave them a whole lot of support. In a way, it's a great attention-seeking device. You have a lot of people wanting to talk to you about it. And so it didn't seem to put the students off when it came to getting pregnant. That's for sure.

MONTAGNE: And what does the dolls' manufacturer have to say about the results of the study that suggests that the opposite has been achieved to what was aimed for?

BRINKMAN: Their response has been interesting in two ways. One, they're sort of saying, well, you know, you didn't deliver the program in the way that we advise. But secondly, they're sort of back-stepping a bit and saying that, well, that wasn't really our intention in the first place - to delay teenage pregnancy - which is not actually how they promoted the program in the first place. And when we started this study, it was back in 2003. And since that time, the people who make the babies, their company has expanded dramatically.

And they're used for a whole lot of other things, so not just teenage pregnancy prevention, but they're also used in childcare studies. And I think, you know, over that time we've seen the marketing from the company shift a little bit and less of a focus on teenage pregnancy prevention and more of a focus on child care. So that's been interesting to watch. And maybe they had suspicions themselves that this program actually wasn't working as everybody had originally hoped.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

BRINKMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Sally Brinkman is lead author of the study that appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.