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Instinctive Nurturing: The Therapeutic Use of Dolls



The therapeutic use of baby dolls has become a popular approach for engaging people with dementia in a functional task.  The purpose is not to “play” with the doll as child would during role play, but to tap into a deeply rooted nurturing instinct that has its own set of motor skills hard wired in the brain.  It can be used as a therapeutic tool under a number of circumstances:

  1. Betty is difficult to engage.  She is unresponsive to most external stimuli and stares blankly into space.  But when Betty is seated in a rocking chair and a baby doll is handed to her, she holds the baby using the correct posture and begins to rock and sing.
  2. Elise paces constantly.  She is anxious and repeats the same phrase over and over again, or she rambles incoherently.  Elise wanders into other residents’ bedrooms and collects random items.  When Elise is led to the changing table and the baby doll is placed naked on the mat, she proceeds to reach for the diaper and the blanket.  She may not finish the task completely, but she will not walk away, governed by the instinct to not abandon the baby.
  3. Connie is also anxious and paces a lot.  In fact, she rarely sits down.  When Connie is given a baby doll weighted with 8 lbs, she carries the baby up and down the hall and gets a workout while she walks.  The weight tends to calm her and fatigue her to the point where she accepts rest in a rocking chair where she can still safely move in a rhythmic, comforting pace.
  4. Bill was labeled as “sexually inappropriate” to the female caregivers in his facility.  Bill was not so much sexually inappropriate as he was just longing for someone to touch.  Bill’s wife had died and his children were grown.  Bill enjoyed petting the visiting dog, but the dog never stayed long enough to keep Bill occupied.  When Bill was given a baby doll to hold and rock, he snuggled with it and told stories about his children and his grandchildren.  His adverse behavior toward the staff stopped once he had a different outlet for affection.
  5. Tony is combative during self care.  He resists the caregiver’s attempts to stand him up or change his clothes.  When the staff hand Tony a baby doll, he is temporarily stunned- long enough for the caregivers to complete the task.  He might not be keen on holding the baby doll, but he’s not likely to drop it or use it as a weapon.




The nurturing instinct is very strong in humans, as in most of the animal world.  Using baby dolls and pets can be a very simple way of moderating adverse behavior, mitigating the risk of falls, and engaging someone with dementia in a functional activity.




Give it try and let me know what you think.


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  1. It’s such an amazing thing to watch – my mom used to light up at the sight of her doll. She would stroke her hair, cuddle her, make funny faces at her, and tell her she loved her… Those are the moments when you don’t know whether to smile or cry.

    I wrote this piece on our experience.


    I just ran across your blog but will be visiting often and recommending it to others. What a great resource!

    • Wow what a great (and well written) account. I wish we had more to offer the victims of this disease.

      • Thank you, Sue. And thanks for the post on FB.

        • This is such a great article. We have implemented the use of baby dolls in our facilty. Its incredible to see someone who is anxious,won’t rest, and wanders constantly. These behaviors often cause increased caregiver worry and burden as they are at a loss with how to comfort their loved one. Not to forget that these behaviors often lead to
          increased falls secondary to their inability to rest and comfort themselves. Falls may be reduced by implementing a rest program and providing a baby for them to find comfort with during this time.

          There is much to be said about our very basic needs. Food ,shelter, and Love. A baby doll provided to that loved one,patient,resident…can provide comfort and quality of life at a time when all else appears to be unsuccessful.

          • I agree. I use this therapy daily within my work. The results are amazing.
            It has been proven to assist in needing less medication, help anxiety and relax patients who have a tendency to wander about.
            I have done lots of research ( seen on my website), into how this works and the benefits.

  2. I have two reborn baby dolls (one looks like a 3-month old and the other is newborn). When I visit my husband in the nursing center and bring the baby dolls, women (both residents and workers) are totally amazed at the reality of these baby dolls. It is important to supervise the doll therapy to be able to take the dolls as soon as the individual appears to be tiring of the activity.

    I have noticed residents talking, holding them in a nurturing way, and even singing to the dolls. The newborn has his eyes closed and they whisper to him where the one with the eyes open receives louder comments, laughter, etc.

    Dr. Ethelle Lord
    Pioneer in Alzheimer’s coaching

    • I NEEDED a new profile pic for faoobcek I didn’t know I would have the honor of being on the BLOG! I love watching my beautiful, fun-loving daughter work! It’s my privilege to share time with her! So glad the BLOG has been launched more fun to come!

  3. Thanks for this post! Do you know of any research that has been done to support the therapeutic use of baby dolls in people with memory loss?

  4. I really enjoyed this article. My mom got me many dolls for Christmas when I was young. I will get her a doll for Christmas this year.

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