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Inside the Instagram phenomenon of 'reborn dolls'

Lindsey Hunter Lopez is a freelance writer and general mother hustler with degrees from University of California, Santa Cruz and New York University. Lindsey resides in Northeast Los Angeles with her husband, bulldog, and two hilarious p...

Meet these 'real' baby dolls and the women who mother them

“The decorating was short lived because I had to feed this hungry girl,” reads an Instagram post from @thefamilyseeds. The photo shows what looks like a baby breastfeeding in a sweet knit hat and tiny, earth-toned outfit. But it’s not quite a baby. The skin tone is a little too uniform, the pose a little too stiff. This uncanny infant is in fact a “reborn” doll — a lifelike vinyl baby doll created by and for adult women. Welcome to the surreal world of the #rebornmommy.

Meet these 'real' baby dolls and the women who mother them
Image: Instagram

Although the love affair between women and dolls is nothing new (think: your eccentric great aunt’s porcelain doll collection), the Instagram world of reborns is a recent phenomenon. Instagram has offered a ready-made platform for broadcasting the intricacies of such relationships for all the world to see. It’s where many women choose to showcase these dolls, their accouterments and elaborate nurseries and find a community of like-minded “mommies.” 

At first Emma Murdoch (@emmas_reborn_nursery), 19, wasn’t enthused about the realistic dolls. After researching the crafting process (during which a collector or artist assembles the dolls and paints them to appear more lifelike), though, she was intrigued. “I love seeing the different painting styles, [how] different artists work, different techniques, different hairstyles,” Emma says. She decided to paint and put together a doll of her own, a process called “newborning.”

Meet these 'real' baby dolls and the women who mother them
Image: Instagram

Reborn dolls got their start in the late 1990s. A woman took her Ashton Drake doll apart, painted it, added realistic features and added weight to the body to make it feel like a real baby, explains Kelsey (@kelseys_cradle), 21, who prefers not to give her last name. Wilmington resident Caroline, (@loving_hadley12), 31, first saw the dolls on eBay. “I've always loved dolls and babies and was intrigued by these dolls that looked like real babies.” 

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The #rebornexpecting hashtag features dolls that have been ordered, as if the buyer is “expecting” a child. Those who long for a reborn doll of their very own better have deep pockets (or coordinate an equally realistic baby shower) — depending on the artist selling them, the dolls can run from the hundreds to thousands of dollars. Caroline says the average cost for a doll (which are generally purchased on eBay) is in the $300 to $800 range. “I've spent a lot of money on Hadley,” she says of one of her dolls, which was $350 on eBay. “Then I paid $100 to get her touched up. Then $300 to get her completely repainted with different limbs.”

Meet these 'real' baby dolls and the women who mother them
Image: Instagram

Reborn Instagram posts often center on baby bargains and shopping hauls, with women sharing pacifier collections, the bouncy seat they found for a steal or a baby clothes spree. “I would say the average collector spends anywhere from $500 to $1,000 annually,” says Kelsey. Caroline shares that she spends about $40 per week on clothes and accessories for her reborn, Hadley. Based on my conversations with collectors, it seems the average reborn aficionado spends around $1,000 to $3,000 a year once dolls, cribs, clothing and accessories are factored in. Reborn mommies buy baby gear and post photos of their nursery setups, complete with cribs.

Captions often read as if the reborns are actual, living babies. “I’ve got a wiggle worm this morning,” writes @lil.babyjane of her doll Otis (who has his own hashtag, complete with middle name).

“I never say she is a doll,” posts Caroline of an outing with Hadley in a baby carrier. “What I like about the community,” she explains, “is there are people that like dolls like me and walk around stores with them like me and dress them like me and do everything I do with Hadley — just like me.”

But not every collector has such an involved relationship with his or her dolls. “I think they’re adorable and love having them to hold and look at and snuggle when I’m down, but they’re dolls,” says Emma. She thinks of her four reborns as “collectibles that you can grow really fond of.” 

More: In defense of spending $100 to buy 'just a doll' for your daughter

Actual babies are so much work; it’s hard to imagine someone putting all that effort and love (not to mention money) into something that’s not even, well, real. But maybe that’s the point. “[I] love that it's an opportunity for someone to have a positive outlet for their parenting instincts,” says Kelsey. “I don't want a baby right now because the time isn't right, but reborns have helped with ‘baby fever,’ I guess you could say.” 

Meet these 'real' baby dolls and the women who mother them
Image: Instagram

I asked marriage and family therapist Megan Costello her thoughts on the reborn phenomenon. “For some people who are traumatized (sexually or otherwise), relationships with other people can be dangerous and scary,” says Costello. “But these fears don't erase the human need for connection and relationship. These dolls may provide a safe way for a person to have a relationship, feel nurtured and needed and meet the needs of others.” She adds that a reborn doll could also help someone cope with loss, such as a miscarriage, or remind them of a time when life felt safe and happy. (There are several stories online of people — including reality star Courtney Stodden — using reborn dolls to deal with baby loss,.) 

Reborn collectors speak fondly of the camaraderie they’ve found online. “One of the things I love about this hobby is that we are such a diverse community,” says Kelsey. “We have men and women from all different nations, religions and ethnicities. We also have people as young as 11 and as old as 80. I've even heard of reborns being used as therapy for patients with dementia.”

Emma echoes Kelsey’s sentiments. “I love the IG reborn community,” she shares, adding that she receives positive comments on a daily basis. “It’s a really welcoming community and most people are just so kind.”

But the general public, friends and family? “I’ve never had anyone be nasty to me about it,” Emma says. “They either really love them and ask loads of questions… or they just say, ‘oh that’s cool’ and go on about things.”

Caroline posts that sometimes people are none the wiser regarding her doll’s nonhuman status. “Another mom thought she was real and I role played it out,” she writes of being out with her reborn.

So the next time you assume that infant you see in a carrier — or on Instagram — is a real, live baby, you might want to look twice.

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