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Could Playing with Dolls Predict Your Parenting Style?

Study uses role-playing to predict future parenting style
Photograph by Getty Images/Purestock

It's probably been decades since you picked up a baby doll and started playing house. But for 182 couples in a recent Ohio State University study, they were asked to do just that — while being videotaped.

The couples were all expectant parents in the third trimester of pregnancy, and were told to imagine that the tiny baby doll they held before them was the one they were about to be having. While they role-played, researchers off-camera watched for clues in their behavior — both towards each other and towards their "baby." Then, nine months after the birth of their real babies, the couples were asked to come back together, so researchers could analyze their real-life behavior as parents.

Now you might expect two grown adults who are playing with a doll would act pretty differently around their pretend baby as they would their real baby. Not so, discovered the researchers.

“We saw the same kinds of behaviors between parents when they were interacting with their baby that we saw a year earlier with the doll,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, one of the study's co-authors and a professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.

In some cases, this was good news, but in others ... not so much.

“The extent to which couples support or undermine each other’s interactions with the doll predicts their co-parenting behavior a year later,” added Schoppe-Sullivan.

The aim of the study was to look at co-parenting in a new way, by trying to identify trouble spots and behavioral predictions. But according to Schoppe-Sullivan, their method of using dolls with expectant parents was pretty unconventional. In fact, it has rarely (if ever) been used in the US, and was first developed by researchers in Switzerland.

“When people first hear about it, many think it is strange," she shared. "They think it is silly to have adults play with dolls. But couples in our study responded positively to the activity. They were able to take it seriously and it really does predict how they will co-parent.”

And according to the study's lead author Lauren Altenburger, a doctoral student in human sciences at Ohio State, the findings raise some important points.

“Co-parenting has consistently been linked to child outcomes," she said. "When parents fight and undermine each other’s parenting, the child suffers. 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."

Each session — before and after the real baby arrived — was just 5 minutes long. During that time, trained researchers analyzed the couples' levels of playfulness, family closeness, structure of play and how much each parent showed intuitive parenting behaviors.

“Some of the couples were very positive, saying nice things to each other about their parenting," said Altenburger. "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.’”

Other couples were less encouraging. “You’re not going to hold the real baby like that, are you?” some would say. According to Altenburger, these parents were more critical of each other whether they were holding the baby doll or their real baby.

The research was held as part of the New Parent Project, a long-term study that looks at factors that impact our transition into parenthood. Learn more here.

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