TRIED & TESTED: BE MY BABY TONIGHT

Battery-powered dolls may laugh, cry and talk, but don't most children just want to give them a bath? Our panel of juniors played the field
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The Independent Culture
Who needs a real baby? Modern baby dolls can eat, drink, breathe, cry, laugh, urinate, defecate, wave their arms and be switched off whenever you are fed up with them. Better still, they appeal to both girls and boys showing not only that a certain maternal instinct is universal, but also that the task of keeping all the kids amused can be achieved by the same toy.

THE PANEL

Boys and girls from age three to eight (whose names have been changed) were let loose on all the dolls while the adults involved in the trial observed the children's behaviour and made their own judgements in terms of the educational value and cost of each doll. The adults included teacher Becca Coles of York Rise Nursery in London; nanny Marise Swanson and mothers Nicola Scicluna-Warren and Fiona Stocker.

THE TEST

We organised two group sessions with different children (one at a private home, one in a nursery school) to assess the appeal of six baby dolls. The trial revealed that gimmicks are not always what children like in a doll. More important were questions of size, cuddle-ability and prettiness - indeed some extra functions were instrumental in the children's rejection of certain dolls.

*BABY BYE-BYE

pounds 29.99

"This doll looks very Seventies to me," remarked Nicola Scicluna-Warren, and complained, "the eyes don't close - a bare minimum for a doll." Baby Bye-Bye's concept, however, is not to go to sleep, as the name suggests, or even to be left behind. The doll comes with a carrier which becomes a bed, feeding seat, backpack and travel bag. "She loves going everywhere with you, so everywhere you go, she can go, too! Carry her, feed her, tuck her into bed and more!" exhort the instructions. We wondered what "more" might mean, and found that, as at the nursery, Baby Bye-Bye was not popular with the testers at home, although the carrier was much admired. "The children just tipped the doll out and installed Tiny Tears in the backpack," reported Becca Coles. Meanwhile one child in her class (William, 3) put Baby Bye-Bye to bed and pretended to feed her with a bottle. "This baby don't make a noise does she," he pronounced after a while and walked off looking "slightly bored".

***CHAD VALLEY DRINK AND WET DOLL

pounds 9.99

Available in either black or white versions this doll is exclusive to Woolworths. The adults were impressed by the price and the children didn't seem bothered by the fact that it is a mere drink-and-wet model with a hard body. Despite a nappy and potty being provided as accessories, the children were only momentarily interested in watching the water spurt out of the doll's "pee-pee hole" all over the floor. The doll's face is admittedly "more like a troll than a dolly - perhaps it's a trolly" said Nicola Scicluna-Warren, but it does have sleeping eyes, a pretty romper-suit and long hair to play with. Becca Coles reported that the children in her class "enjoyed feeding and cuddling this doll. Sam (3) made a home for it inside the climbing frame. He cradled it in his arms and had to be persuaded to let Chloe hold it even after half an hour."

*BABY EXPRESSIONS GIRL DOLL

pounds 33.50

This large - too large, according to Becca Coles - doll requires no fewer than five batteries to perform its noisy crying/laughing and facial functions. Lying down, Baby Expressions wails mechanically with closed eyes; sitting up, she has a staccato, machine-gun laugh which is possibly more annoying than the cry. "It's like something out of a horror film," said Nicola Scicluna-Warren, while Marise Swanson likened the doll's mobile plastic features to those of Clive Anderson. You are not supposed to squeeze the face "due to the complex mechanical nature of the doll", but with its squashy cheeks this was precisely what all the children wanted to do (and did).

Chelsea (7) had already seen television adverts for the Baby Expressions doll, and insisted that "the boy doll looks better". Even after rejecting the girl doll as "horrible" with "a disgusting tongue", Chelsea was still looking forward to receiving the boy doll for Christmas, proving the impact that advertising can have.

At the nursery, Andrew (4) was observed trying to comfort the crying Baby Expressions as he played at keeping post office. "This baby isn't very happy," he told a teacher "Why do you think that is?" she asked. "I don't know, I just don't know," he replied. After much more stroking and soothing the doll was still crying; he started to shake it and make a fist, but saw an adult watching and stopped. In fact the only positive comments about this doll resulted from a misunderstanding: "Aah," said Olivia (8), as she turned the doll upside down (a thing the instructions forbid as causing malfunction), "when you stroke its back, it stops crying!"

****BABY BORN

pounds 33.99

Baby Born was voted British Association of Toy Retailers Baby Doll of the Year last year, and it certainly offers a lot for your money, working entirely without batteries to drink, wet its nappy, shed "real" (sic) tears, eat special doll food, squeak and "soil its potty". It also comes with a plethora of accessories, from bottle, plate, spoon, dummy, doll- food, potty, nappy and dress, to several booklets, one of which describes the development of a foetus in child-friendly terms. The doll's features are "very well observed", according to Fiona Stocker, even if Marise Swanson identified Harry Connick Jnr in Baby Born's jowly face. "The plastic feels more like skin than the other dolls," said Nicola Scicluna-Warren, adding, "It's such a nice doll, the functions almost spoil it."

Given that Baby Born is not electric, activating its functions can be strenuous, not to say aggressive. After drinking, you have to "squeeze its right arm hard to cause large tears to roll down its cheeks." Squeezing its left arm makes it squeak, and to make it "soil its potty" you must squeeze its legs together while pushing down on its head, "not something I would like the children to see," said Rebecca Coles. "Imagine the fears we might instil in children coming up to potty training." Yet the children at home (not to mention the adults) wanted to witness doll defecation, wondering if the cereal mix provided as doll-food would somehow change colour. The results (a little watery) were disappointing. Chelsea (7), who already had a Baby Born from last Christmas, also told us that, "I got fed up with it because it only ever did little wees." The mothers looked askance at the directions to wash Baby Born through with detergent to prevent the food in its stomach from going mouldy. "It's rather like your child having a pet," said Fiona Stocker. "They feed it; but you have to clear up its pooh and wash it down."

*****THERE, THERE BABY

pounds 14.99

If you think watching a doll breathe is about as interesting as watching paint dry, think again: There, There Baby has sleeping eyes, a breathing chest and cries "for attention", uttering the words "Mummy, mummy" in between sobs. It is soothed when a dummy is put into its mouth. The instructions exhorting children to "Hear her cry if you take her dummy away" and "You can even see her breathing as she cries!" struck the adults as slightly sadistic, but this was exactly what enthralled the children.

The dummy and bottle that came with There, There Baby have long, plastic spikes rather like an insect's proboscis which activates the breathing motor, but their inauthenticity wasn't noticed. "It's sweet!" said Olivia who spoke for all the children in the home group, all of whom desperately wanted to take this doll away with them. For their part, the mothers sighed with relief at the "magic" feeding bottle which didn't have to be continually replenished with water and Becca Coles confirmed that this doll was "definitely the most popular. It's just a pity that, because it has batteries, you couldn't actually put it in the bath."

***TINY TEARS BATH PLAYTIME SET

pounds 36.99

My First Tiny Tears is a more babyish looking doll, being bald with a bonnet, than the classic Tiny Tears - supplied to us in a splendid Bath Playtime Set - which comes with long, blonde-hair, for which the grooming possibilities seemed to be more interesting to the children than the doll's drinking, wetting and crying functions. "She's lovely," sighed Isobel (3). "She looks just like Doris Day, which always helps" said Marise Swanson. Rachel (3), who has a twin brother, wished the doll were Timmy Tears, but the other children were satisfied with Tiny Tears' endless accessories: bathrobe, sailor-style dress, bottle, nappy, comb, soap, soap box, flannel and baby wipes. Becca Coles noted that the flimsy nappy "tore immediately". The most used accessories, she said, were the bottle, spoon and plate and that the bathrobe was easier to get on and off than most dolls' clothes. But from a parent's point of view, Nicola Scicluna-Warren felt that the accessories "just add to the mountain of plastic flotsam which you have to clear off the floor every day."

STOCKISTS

For details of stockists for: There, There Baby call Peterkin, 0116 2543645; Baby Expressions call Famosa, 0115 9642004; Tiny Tears call Playmates, 0116 2823500; Baby Born call Max Zapf, 01536 710 120; Baby Bye-Bye call Hasbro UK, 0181 569 1234. Most dolls featured are stocked by Hamleys, London. Chad Valley from branches of Woolworths nationwide. !

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