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Practice Babies

What Are Practice Babies?

In the United States, certain programs were designed to benefit the economy and teach high school and college-level students real-world tasks. One program, in particular, used actual orphaned children. These babies were loaned out to college homes for the sake of education.

Meet the practice babies. Orphaned babies were borrowed out to college home economics programs in the early to mid-1900s, where they were completely cared for by groups of students learning child-rearing skills.

How and When does this Program Start?

From 1919 to 1969, college home economics programs across the United States started so-called practice houses or practice apartments where young women learned domestic arts such as cooking, cleaning, and household management. The students honed their mothering skills by caring for practice babies. These infants were lent to the school by local orphanages.
Lisa Grunwald investigated the practice for her novel The Irresistible Henry House and used it as the basis for the plot. Grunwald claims that she discovered the concept of orphan babies while working on an anthology of letters written by American women. She came across a photograph of the most beguiling baby with this roguish grin, who had been a practice baby at Cornell University.

He’d been looked after by a group of about a dozen women who took turns being his practice mother.

Lisa Grunwald, American Author

(Source: NPR)

How Did They Name the Practice Babies and Carry Out the Program’s Procedures?

By the 1950s, this program was in place at around 40 or 50 colleges and universities across the United States.

The baby Grunwald discovered in the photo was actually named Bobby Domecon, which is short for domestic economics. All of the babies at Cornell University were given the surname Domecon, and all of the practice babies at Illinois State University were given the surname North or South, depending on which building they were raised in.

Many of the babies arrived at the universities malnourished, but they were soon plumped with good food and became quite healthy after their time in these programs.

The babies would be taken from the orphanage as soon as they were born, and the mothers would take turns caring for them. The rotations varied depending on the college; sometimes one mother would have a baby for a week or ten days at a time. In others, a mother would lay the baby down for a nap, and another student would be present when it awoke. But it was always done on a strict timetable.

When I first heard about it, I thought it was strange and a little creepy. However, at the time this occurred, everything was viewed as a potential opportunity for a scientific approach, and child care was no exception. The practice houses embraced the idea that you could learn mothering in the same way you could learn cooking or chemistry – everything was teachable, and systems were crucial.

Lisa Grunwald, American Author

(Source: NPR)

Did this Program Affect the Babies Psychologically?

Grunwald tried to find out what were the long-term effects of the orphans who were raised this way. She discussed the matter with several experts in the field.

They told me about attachment disorder. If a child doesn’t form one really tight bond in the first years of life, it sometimes happens that he or she can develop attachment disorder.

Lisa Grunwald, American Author

Unfortunately, there was no evidence of this claim since the babies were not followed and studied as they were growing up. (Source: NPR)

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