American infant simulators help traumatised Polish youths learn to be parents

Estera will soon turn 17. She is living in a youth educational center in Samostrzel, a small village in the province of Kujawsko-Pomorskie. She hasn’t had an easy life. Nor have the other girls living with her. None of them are older than 18, but each of them have been through more than most adults – domestic abuse, exclusion, ditching classes and running away, smoking, drinking, self-harm, suicide attempts.

Almost every weekend Estera asks for permission to take care of three-month-old Oliwia. She then takes the baby to a child’s room so as not to disturb other people in their sleep. And to feel what it is like to be a mother.

“You never know what to expect,” she says. “This little one can really put you through it. The first time with her was particularly difficult. Back then I didn’t know what each of her cries meant and what she wanted. Is she hungry? Should I change her diaper? Or maybe she just wants me to lull her to sleep? Whenever she started crying, I panicked. But I’m fine now. I take her everywhere with me: for a walk, to church or even to school. One time, she started crying in the middle of my class test. Recently, I had to make waffle dough with Oliwia on my hip as she wouldn’t go to bed.”

A thrilling first experience

Oliwia is a machine – an interactive infant simulator which is manufactured by American firm, Realityworks and which looks and acts like a three-month-old baby. The facility in Samostrzel already has two of the simulators. The girl was bought eight years ago and the boy—named Oliwier— was purchased two years ago.

Youtube movie URL:

Oliwia and Oliwier cry when they want to be fed, lulled or have their diaper changed
Source: Sztuczna Inteligencja / YouTube

How has the local community reacted to that? At first, they were confused seeing young girls attending Sunday masses with toy babies in their arms. Eventually, they got used to it, though some can still be heard scoffing: “Oh, for the love of God, what is all that?”.

But within the walls of the facility it was different.

“It was a thrilling experience at first,” recalls Magda Hoffmann, the tutor responsible for the dolls. “Each of the girls wanted to take care of the dolls, so we decided to make a baby room with a crib, cuddly toys and clothes for newborns,”. That’s where a girl who wants to take care of a baby is accommodated, usually for three days. First, each of the girls receives a document, a sort of birth certificate, confirming that she has a daughter or a son and stating that her baby weighs 3 and 1/2 kg and measures 54 cm. From then on, she is responsible for her baby.

The unbearable sound of a baby’s cry

Oliwia and Oliwier cry when they want to be fed, lulled or have their diaper changed. Their cries are as loud and as unbearable as those of real babies. And they won’t be soothed until they get what they want. They are fitted with temperature sensors, so they have to be dressed appropriately: they can be neither too hot nor too cold. They can be bottle fed or breastfed with the use of a special simulator. Sensors installed in their necks help a foster mother learn how to hold a baby’s head. The robots are programmed to operate for three days. There are three modes to choose from: easy (with the doll’s activity being very limited), medium and hard, or hell as it is referred to by the girls. If you go for the last one, you never know what will happen.

The robots are programmed for three days. There are three modes to choose from: easy (with doll’s activity being very limited), medium and hard, also referred to as hell

“After the three days, a computer report is generated,” says Magda Hoffmann. “It allows me to check what happened during that time, for example how many times the doll needed to have her diaper changed and how many times her diaper was actually changed, or whether the doll was fed as many times as she was supposed to be. The report also includes a list of unwanted events, such as dropping, yanking or holding the doll upside down. Most of our girls are excellent moms, but some want to test the doll or even put her through it. With the report, we can clearly identify everyone who has mistreated the baby.”

A real family has to wait

Magda is trying to show the girls that it’s not yet time for having real babies, as they require a lot of time and commitment. You have to be ready for it.

“It’s a very good project,” says Estera. “It makes you realize that having a baby is not as easy as you may think. My friends at the facility already know that. But in my hometown girls are not so careful with planning their future, and they get pregnant at a very young age. They don’t realize what it’s like: you can’t sleep the whole night because of your baby crying, you might get affected by postnatal depression, you might go to pieces if you’re not ready for motherhood and if you lack support. And being a single mother is not so rare because men want to escape the responsibility. I am with Oliwia every week, but I know that I’m not yet prepared to have a real baby. I have different plans. It’s my last year in the elementary school. Next year I want to continue my education in a technical school of chemistry. I will start a family a bit later.”

We need those dolls

“Our girls often think that because of the fact they were unloved in the past, they will now need someone who will love them and whom they will love. They often get pregnant too early,” confirms Agnieszka Sikora from Po Drugie, a Warsaw-based foundation. “Let’s not forget that we are talking about young people who have been stripped of parental love and who have lacked warmth and a sense of security. They have often been exposed to things beyond our imagination. That’s why they want to start their families as soon as possible, which, unfortunately, does not always lead to a happy ending.”

A baby to love

Po Drugie helps young homeless people. Most of them were brought up in orphanages. They cannot count on their families and when they turn 18, the end up on the streets. The foundation does its best to support them by offering training apartments and courses, as well as psychological and legal assistance. It also runs educational programs in support facilities to help the teenagers make a good start in their adult lives, one example being a program to build the foundations of responsible parenthood.

“When I learned about interactive dolls, I knew we had to get them,” says Agnieszka Sikora, the founder and president of the foundation. “We drafted a proposal called “When I become a mom or dad” and submitted it to the city authorities. And that’s how we purchased our first dolls,”

That project was conducted in the Juvenile Shelter and Youth Detention Center in Falenica, and received an award in 2012 for the best NGO initiative in the field of social assistance during the S3KTOR competition, which is organised every year by the city of Warsaw.. Since then the foundation has been using infant simulators as part of its work with young people.

I thought I had killed her

“As of now, we have six babies,” says Małgorzata Sabalska, a member of the organization responsible for development of the educational program and for the sale of simulators. “We’ve used them to train hundreds of young people in many care facilities. We also lend them to girls living in foster families to take home for at least three days. Being with such a doll makes them realize the problems you have to face when you’re a mom. And we’re not talking here about technical issues like how to hold a baby or how to feed them; we’re talking about emotions and about making them realize how much responsibility it is,”.

Paula, a girl supported by the foundation, had her first baby at the age of 18.

“I was young and inexperienced. I didn’t plan that,” she recalls. “I came to a youth educational center when I was 17. Before that I had been homeless for three years. My mother is dead, and my father abused me and made me leave the house. I spent nights at my friends’ houses or slept in staircases. When my son was born, I didn’t know how to handle that. He was taken away from me and placed in a foster family. It was then that I turned to the foundation as I wanted to get him back. I’ve done a lot of courses, including the one with the dolls.”

Paula enjoyed the course, although at the beginning she was terrified because the doll had stopped reacting to anything.

“I thought I had killed her. I was aware that it could happen,” she says. “Fortunately, it was only flat batteries. I was given a new doll and I took care of her for several days. I took her for a walk, I changed her diapers, I fed her. I did great.”

Now, Paula has two children. Her daughter is 14 months old. She is trying to be the best mother she can.

Boys can do it too

“Some simply can’t take their eyes off the dolls and they get emotionally involved,” says Agnieszka Sikora. “Others say it’s a nightmare and that they will never have children. And there is a group of people who say that it’s OK, but they will make the decision about having children later. And that’s what the courses are about: to make youths realize that they have plenty of time to become mother or a father.”

In general, young people view the program positively. It allows them to experience new things. It’s not just about a trainer saying: “A baby means huge responsibility”: it allows them to draw their own conclusions. Caring for a doll pushes them to think about their own sexuality, responsibility, being mature, and coping with emotions.

The program is aimed at both girls and boys.

“The vast majority take good care of the dolls,” adds Sabalska. “Boys can do it too, although they feel a bit uneasy about it, or maybe they try to hold back their emotions and not go into ruptures over everything. But they want to take care of the babies too. And they know how to do it”.

“I am with Oliwia every week but I know that I’m not yet prepared to have a real baby. I have different plans”

Those who can’t handle the stress will hear their tutors say: “It’s OK, just quit the program,”. That information is vital. It makes a person realize whether they are capable of becoming good parents, but also tells them what kind of people they are, how they cope with emotions, how they react in difficult situations and whether they can stay in control.

Kick the habit, get your daughter back

Specialists from Po Drugie foundation claim that robotic dolls are universal tools, and are not only for traumatised people. For example, they can prove helpful in teaching pregnant girls how to look after a baby. Taking care of a doll can mean different things to different people.

“Why do you want to take care of that doll?” I asked a girl who is responsible for doing light office tasks and cleaning in the foundation. Ania is living with three other girls supported by the foundation in a training apartment.

“To experience all this again, I guess… I already have a child,” she says. “The doll is the same as my Nikola was. She wakes up every two hours, she cries. You need to feed her, change her diaper, lull her. These dolls are an excellent idea for young girls before getting pregnant. I wish I’d had one before Nikola was born… Frankly, I didn’t know how to deal with a baby back then. I didn’t want to have kids. I knew I wasn’t made for it. I’m an addict. When I got pregnant, I wanted to have an abortion or give my baby up for adoption. But then I fell in love with my daughter and I decided that I would never leave her… But then my husband threw me out and I ended up on the streets.”

When Ania started her rehab, the court automatically restricted her parental rights. Her husband does not allow her to see her daughter. They haven’t seen each other for four months. She would love to get her back, but she knows she has to kick her habit first.

Memories etched in the mind

Realityworks’ dolls—of both sexes and of different races—are massively popular in the United States. They are used during family education classes in 80% of American schools. You can also see them in most schools in Germany.

In Poland they are less common and are purchased mainly by the facilities helping so-called disadvantaged youngsters. The dolls, distributed in Poland by the Po Drugie foundation since 2016, have also been ordered by the youth educational center in Samostrzel, the youth educational center in Goniądz, the attendance center in Goleniów and a healthcare facility in Słupsk. Recently, the dolls were also purchased by the Warsaw Family Assistance Center.

Apart from standard manikins of healthy babies, there are also three dysfunctional models. The first represents a baby suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the second a drug-affected baby, and the third a robotic baby with a transparent head designed to visualize traumatic brain injuries caused by shaking. While these models are not interactive, they are extremely impressive.

“Memories of experiences with such a simulator are etched in your mind, which brings better results than preaching,” says Agnieszka Sikora. “In Poland teenagers aged 15 and up are legally allowed to make a decision about having sex. That would be a good moment for organizing classes with artificial babies in all schools,”.

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