Why Do Babies Want Baby Dolls?

Child playing with a baby doll

Verywell / Photo Composite by Nusha Ashjaee / Getty Images

"My kids have approximately five thousand toys, and their favorites have always been dolls,” says Hali Berman, 37, a mother of three from New Jersey. Since Berman’s daughters, who are now 3 and 5, received their first baby dolls around age 1, they’ve pushed them in strollers to the park, dragged them to Grandma’s house, and even covered their "boo-boos" with bandages. Now, their 6-month-old brother likes playing with the dolls’ hair.

Sound familiar? Your young child’s affinity for baby dolls is normal and natural, according to developmental experts and child psychologists. Read on to better understand why your child won’t let go of their baby doll and how their favorite toy may be enhancing their social and emotional growth.

Why Does My Baby Like to Play with Baby Dolls?

If you have a playroom filled with exciting toys, books, and games, you may be wondering why a simple baby doll commands your child's attention. “A lot of it has to do with what the doll is like and whether it’s a sensory match for the child,” says Florida-based psychologist Debbie White, PhD, who has been working with children for 30 years. At first, a soft, cuddly doll might align with their current sensory preferences, but as children get a little older, they begin to relate to dolls regardless of what they look like.

Human connection is also a major proportion of very young children's daily experiences. “When you’re age 1 or 2, the most important part of your life is the people around you, and dolls are just miniature people,” says Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “Kids are drawn to pretend play and acting out what they experience. It’s a lot harder to act out hugging, kissing, and bedtime with blocks.”

Pre-verbal children or new talkers may also find dolls useful for communicating their emotions. If a child picks up a doll and feeds it or otherwise expresses that their "baby" is hungry, it could be a way of flagging their own feelings to a parent or caregiver, Dr. White says. 

Why Should Kids Play With Baby Dolls?

While dolls aren’t necessarily part of any formal curriculum, experts agree they offer a host of developmental benefits for young children.  

“I bought baby dolls for both of my sons and daughter,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda says. “It gives children the opportunity to be empathic, emotional, and show caring and attention toward others.” 

Along with social-emotional benefits, playing with dolls can also promote skills that help prepare a child for preschool. Learn more about what children gain from this sweet, fun form of imaginative play.

Communication Skills

While dolls don’t tend to be big talkers, this doesn’t stop children from conversing with them. “Children get a lot of language practice through talking to their dolls,” Dr. White says. “If they feel unsure or scared to say something, they may say it to their doll.” 

Dolls can also facilitate peer-to-peer social skills. “As children approach preschool age, you’ll see a child pretending to take their baby to the doctor or school and having rich conversations with other children about these scenarios,” DeLapp notes.

Doll friends likewise provide an opportunity for children to learn words for feelings that can be unseen or covert, like hunger, sleepiness, or sadness. “Different kinds of play support different kinds of language learning,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda explains.

Doll play can also help a child express themselves. “If a child is feeling shy, you can ask about the baby, which can be a great way to facilitate back and forth communication,” says Dr. White. Since role-playing is a form of projection, you should lend an ear should your child tell you their doll is sad or scared.

Creative Thinking

As toddlers develop, pretend play becomes a cornerstone of the baby-doll experience, opening the door for thinking outside the box. “Children can act out things that have happened to them or things that they have seen in real life or books or television shows," says Julia DeLapp, MS, director of an early childhood research center at Eastern Connecticut State University. Or they can just use their imagination to think of what a baby might do and how a caregiver might respond.”

You can serve as scaffolding to encourage higher levels of pretend play with dolls. While you don’t have to chaperone your child’s entire play session, asking them, “Is baby hungry? What are you going to feed her?” or offering a pot of dry pasta and a wooden spoon can encourage them to imagine at higher levels and extend a session of independent play, Dr. Tamis-LeMonda says.

Empathy

Common toddler traits like impatience and stubbornness demonstrate that young kids often struggle to acknowledge those around them. “Kids can have a hard time getting used to the fact that others have different thoughts and feelings,” Dr. White says.

Playing with dolls can help nurture empathy—particularly when an adult is there to guide them. For example, if your child pretends that their baby doll is crying, you might ask, “Is your baby sad?” or “What do you think would make them feel better?” 

“This helps young children learn to recognize and name emotions and also to think about someone else’s perspective and someone else’s needs,” says DeLapp.  

Fine Motor Skills

While blocks and puzzles can help encourage fine motor development, many children like to dress and undress dolls using buttons and zippers. These tricky movements give kids the opportunity to practice these practical skills, says DeLapp.

Self-Help Skills

When children feed their baby dolls, they practice using a cup, fork, and spoon—skills they can apply at their next real meal. (Another perk of pretend feeding: It can facilitate conversations about what your child does and doesn’t like to eat in real life.)

Doll play may also promote personal hygiene skills. Many children like to brush their dolls' hair, and Berman recalls a time when she found her child brushing her dolls' teeth (with real toothpaste, no less).

Self-Soothing Skills

When a child showers a doll or stuffed animal with affection it's not only cute, it is likely helping them cope with big emotional feelings.

After all, every hug and kiss benefits the little giver, too. “Children learn how to soothe themselves by soothing their dolls,” says Dr. White. 

When Should I Introduce Dolls to my Baby?

Once an infant can hold and manipulate objects, you can introduce a soft doll (with no hard eyes or other small parts that could pose a choking hazard), DeLapp says. 

Many kids develop an interest in dolls between the ages of 1 and 4, Dr. White says. But don’t be dismayed if your child rejects their first doll. After all, certain dolls can be scary for some children—at least initially. “They may not be ready for something with a head and two arms and two legs,” says Dr. White.

In multi-child families, baby dolls can be used to introduce the concept that a sibling or a foster child is joining the family. “It’s generally very effective since it makes the idea of a new baby concrete,” Dr. White says.

The ideal doll should be soft and large enough for your child to snuggle with but small enough for them to carry, Dr. Tamis-LeMonda says. “A 3-foot-tall doll with a big plastic head might not be as comforting," she notes.

In terms of engagement, don’t expect a 1-year-old to act out realistic make-believe scenes. “You might see a first fleeting baby-doll hug around 12 months,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda says. “Later, this will progress into more elaborate pretend scenarios like feeding the baby, burping it, and putting it to sleep.” 

Despite the benefits of doll play, your child isn’t doomed if your playroom is doll-free. In the absence of a doll, a stuffed animal that can be hugged, fed, and taken to bed can help nurture their imagination and practice empathy. 

A Word From Verywell

Experts agree that there are real benefits to doll play. Giving your child a soft, easy-to-hold (and hug) baby doll around their first birthday can introduce them to a rich world of pretend play, develop motor and life skills, and enhance social and emotional development. If your child doesn’t gravitate toward baby dolls? Don't worry. They may find a special friend in a stuffed animal or another cuddly character whose presence can provide similar benefits and, one day, memories.

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