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18 July 2011

The Toy Does What?!! "Breast Milk Baby"

ABC News has a story on a toy designed for little girls to breastfeed a doll that will soon be marketed in the United States. The doll ships with a bib that has two flowers positioned as nipples that trigger the doll to make suckling sounds. Here is a clip demonstrating the toy. (Warning: some might find the clip mildly disturbing.)

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. As "mommy blogger" Jessica Gottlieb points out in the above article:
That they [critics] would jump from a breast-feeding doll...that you would take a child feeding and would automatically sexualize it says more about you than the doll....
I've got to agree with her on that one. Americans have had a historically shamed/shaming reaction to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding provides a number of well-documented health and emotional benefits for infants that are amazingly long-lasting so socializing kids to this behavior can arguably be seen as a good thing. However, like playing with dolls in general, the breastfeeding doll is gendered, that is, it's unlikely that boys will be encouraged/allowed to play with it. That said, breastfeeding is not so much a gendered (i.e. socially constructed) behavior as it is a sexed (i.e. biologically determined) behavior. In other words, men are physically incapable of breastfeeding. Some have said that it's basically wrong because it is adult behavior that is undesirable for children to emulate, the let-kids-be-kids argument. The fact is that virtually all child's play imitates adult behavior. Playing house, playing with blocks, playing with dolls, and cops-and-robbers would all be out the window by that definition.

So, what is it about the breastfeeding doll that elicits such strong reactions? Is the toy a good thing? a bad thing? a neutral thing? Honestly, I'm at a loss with this one. I'm hoping some folks will comment below with some insight.


  1. This is a tough one to try to verbalize without getting into some very awkward territory. I think the knee-jerk reaction isn't simply an American reaction to breast feeding, but more of an "oh my gosh, it's a little girl mimicking something having to do with a breast". Within our lifetimes we have seen an extreme increase in the sexualization of American culture in general. (It seems that way to me anyway.) There is just an incredible and very overt hyper-sexualization of women in general, from "sex sells" to dehumanizing and base objectification. But breasts in particular seem to get an inordinate level of attention. As such, it's very difficult to separate the act of nursing, an act that's rather innocuous, from a breast's "culturally permanent sexual denotation". Jessica Gottlieb may claim that "it says more about you than the doll", but I believe it's more accurate to say that it's a perfect reflection of the culture within we live. In fact, I would go so far as to say that very few Americans could view a little girl playing with this product without feeling uncomfortable.

  2. I think that they should have had a boy doing this in the piece. Surely they are privy to watching females breast feed as much as little girls. Why can't they be encouraged to emulate such a unique act through play? They won't get to do it as adults and it might help them to understand that breasts are both potentially sexual and potentially nurturing - sometimes at the same time, sometimes at different times. I don't find it problematic on it's own, but would like to see males doing more stereotypically female things. It would be refreshing.