Jessica Lemus seemed to master the task of strapping a new baby into a car seat. But everything else about the idea of bringing home an infant gave her the same uneasy feeling that most new parents get.
“I’m actually really nervous for it because they’re really hard to take care of,” she said.
Fortunately for her, it’s only a simulation, and the exercise lasts only a weekend.
Lemus, a junior at Lawrence High School, is learning about the realities of caring for a newborn through an electronic, programmable doll that is designed to simulate, as closely as possible, the actual experience.
Lemus was already getting a sense of that as she picked up her simulator baby Friday afternoon and was preparing to take it home.
“As much as my parents love the project, it’s kind of embarrassing to take it out in public because, obviously, it’s kind of scary to have a baby in public if they start screaming and crying, and not knowing what to do,” she said.
The dolls are approximately the size of newborn babies. But they’re programmed to eat, sleep, cry and fuss at various intervals, and they’re equipped with electronic sensors that can monitor whether the student is tending them properly.
“It’s completely wireless,” said Kristi Henderson, who teaches the class. “I just program them with my computer. I can set the difficulty level, so sometimes they get an easy baby, and sometimes not so much. There are sensors in the car seats so I know if they took the baby home whether it’s in a car seat or not. It regulates the temperature so I know if the baby got too hot or too cold, if it was appropriately dressed. It pretty much is an amazing piece of electronics.”
Just as in real life, the students don’t know until they get home whether their child is one that can sleep through the night or will wake up and cry at all hours; whether it’s happy and contented most of the time or needs constant attention.
Matia Finley, a sophomore in the class, had gone through the exercise before, so she volunteered for an especially challenging assignment this time, a baby born already addicted to crack cocaine.
Finley said she wasn’t sure what to expect. “It’ll cry a lot more,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as she strapped the doll into its car seat.
Henderson tried to reassure her.
“You’ve got my cellphone number, right?” she asked. “I’m going to be in town all weekend. We can meet up here, and I can reprogram it if you need me to. Don’t make your life miserable. You don’t do crack, so you would never have a baby this way.”
Henderson said the class teaches about human growth and development, from conception through age six. And much of it centers on trying to simulate the actual experience.
In earlier chapters, they learn about pregnancy by wearing an “empathy belly,” a device that straps around the student’s torso to give them an idea of what it’s like to walk around pregnant.
It weighs about 30 pounds, Henderson said, which is about the normal amount of additional weight that a pregnant woman carries.
“The nice thing is that you can take it off,” Henderson said. “But it makes kids realize that’s a lot of change to your body and it’s physically demanding to be a pregnant woman. And the boys really enjoy it because that’s the closest they’ll ever get to knowing what their wives are going to be experiencing some day.”
Henderson said many teenagers have an overly romantic idea of what it might be like to have a baby, a factor that often contributes to teenage pregnancy. They see other young mothers with babies, and they see those mothers being adored and doted upon by others, but they don’t often see the challenges and responsibilities that go with being a parent.
In Douglas County in 2010, according to state health statistics, there were 102 pregnancies reported among girls and young women, age 15-19. That works out to 18.8 pregnancies per 1,000 females in that age group, well below the state average of 45.1 per 1,000.
Henderson said the simulation exercise works in driving home the message that there are consequences to the choices people make.
“At the beginning, you see them in here and they’re all excited. They get to dress a baby and feed a baby and play with a baby,” she said. “I was reading over the journals that some brought back yesterday (students have to keep a daily journal of their experience) and one of them said, ‘This convinced me, children are not for me.’ It gives them a very realistic sense of how much work goes into it, that it’s not just dressing it and feeding it and playing with it. Sometimes it cries, and you can’t make it stop. Which is life, real life.
“What we hope to get out of it is that the student will understand the process of giving birth, and that it’s a physical experience and that babies are really cute, but they’re also a lot of work,” she said. “They cry and you can’t always fix everything. So it’s important for them to study child development so they can at least have a clue how to respond to a baby crying.”
Henderson said the project is also proving to be popular among the students’ parents.
“I’ve had several parents call and say it gave me an opportunity to talk to my daughter or my son about what this would really be like if this baby were real, the choices you make,” she said. “So it’s been excellent for student-parent discussion.”
“I really want them to talk with their parents,” she added. “The best education they can get is experience, and their parents have experienced it.”