Why Kids Should Play with Baby Dolls (YES, even BOYS!)

This post has been written in collaboration with pediatric speech-language pathologist Katie Yeh (PlayingWithWords365) and clinical psychologist Laura Hutchison (PlayDrMom). Thank you for your wonderful contribution, ladies! 

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The baby doll is such a fantastic toy that we hope ALL children (Yes, even BOYS!) will have the opportunity to own and play with during the toddler years. This is because baby dolls are packed with potential for teaching children about themselves and the world around them. Let’s take a look!

baby dolls

Cognitive, Fine Motor, & Self-Help Skills

Baby dolls offer kids lots of opportunities for developing their cognitive, fine motor, and self-help skills. Kids often find it easier to practice these skills on someone (or something) else before they can apply them to themselves. And because boys often develop some of their fine motor and self-dressing skills later than girls, it’s important for them to be exposed to more opportunities for practice. For example:

  • Dramatizing using a doll: Around two to three years old, children typically begin to act as if their doll can see and interact with them. They may link several actions with the doll in sequence such as feeding the doll, bathing the doll, and then putting the doll to bed. This sort of pretend play is a hugely important part of their cognitive development.
  • Removing clothes: Though some clothing items are easier to remove than others (like those baby socks that never stay on their little feet!), kids often benefit from trying it out on a doll before doing so for themselves. Taking clothing off is usually mastered before putting it on and includes removing items such as hat, socks (pulling from the top rather than pulling on the toes), shoes, shirt, using a pincer grasp to unzip, pulling down pants, and unbuttoning large buttons.
  • Putting on clothes: Getting clothes on can be tough and is typically MUCH easier when first practiced on a doll. Some common clothing items kids can practice on dolls and themselves include placing a hat on their head, zipping with some assistance, putting shoes on, pulling pants up, putting on a shirt, and buttoning large buttons.
  • Using both hands in midline: This skill is expected to emerge around a year and a half and tends to coincide with the development of skills such as zipping/unzipping or holding the doll while pretending to feed it.
  • Feeding: As children’s pretend play skills develop, so do their self-feeding skills! Playing with a baby doll gives them the opportunity to practice appropriately holding and using feeding items such as spoons, bottles, cups, forks, bowls, etc.
  • Bathing: Kids can practice giving their doll a bath (with pretend water if the doll is not allowed to get wet)! This is great for practicing sequencing skills (first fill up the tub, then put on shampoo, then rinse hair, etc.). I have also used dolls in therapy to help kids move past their fear of bathing by having them help me give the doll a pretend bath using all the necessary supplies (so they get used to the sensory experience from the water, shampoo, etc. and can have more control over the experience). We talk about the supplies needed and the steps taken during bath time, and then they can narrate the steps and comfort the doll during “bath time” while playing out a simple or elaborate pretend narrative. (A plastic Potato Head also works great for this experience.) Parents have been so proud when their child eventually agrees to get in the bath after practicing with the doll for weeks on end!
  • Grooming & Hygiene: Dolls provide the perfect opportunity for practicing grooming and hygiene skills such as brushing hair, brushing teeth, and washing hands.
  • Potty training: While I don’t have a lot of experience on this front (yet!), a child with an active imagination can really benefit from using a doll to help with potty training. While skills such as indicating discomfort over soiled pants and sitting on a potty chair with assistance are skills a child must develop in him or herself, they can be played out on the doll either by the caregiver or the child him/herself. For example: “Uh oh! Baby has a wet diaper! He feels yucky”, or “Okay, Baby, time to sit on the potty!”

Speech-Language Skills

The baby doll is a toy that can really help open up and expand a child’s pretend play. Children learn a lot of language through their play and play offers them opportunities to use and practice their speech and language skills. Let’s look at just some of the language concepts that a baby doll can help teach and support:

  • Body Parts: Dolls are FANTASTIC for teaching various body parts: eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hands, fingers, tummy, feet, toes, knees, elbows, etc. Yes, you can teach these without a baby doll but providing another opportunity to practice labeling this vocabulary helps to generalize the vocabulary to other people. It helps to teach children that “nose” not only refers to the thing on their own face but to all faces.
  • Clothing Labels: Using the doll and its clothes, you can teach the names of clothing items like shirts, pants, shoes, socks, jammies, etc. Putting on and taking off the clothes also works on fine motor skills!
  • Basic Concepts: Use baby with other baby toys (bed, blankets) to teach some basic concepts like: prepositions (baby in the bed, baby under the blanket), colors, and size concepts (using different sized dolls).
  • Verbs/Feelings: Use the baby with some other baby toys (bed, bottle, clothes) to teach verbs/feelings/etc. like: eat, drink, sleep, sit, stand, hungry, sleepy, thirsty, and more. For example: “Is the baby hungry? We should give him something to eat!”
  • Answering “wh” questions: You can ask your child an array of questions to work on his understanding of these words while he plays. “Where is baby?” “Where is baby’s nose/fingers/belly button?” “What does the baby want to eat?” “Why is the baby crying?”
  • Social/pragmatic skills: Baby dolls can be a great tool to use to help teach appropriate social/pragmatic skills. Children can take turns playing with different dolls, and they can practice using language to ask questions about the dolls and what they are doing.

Social-Emotional Skills

Children use play to understand their world. Doll play helps children:

  • practice nurturing and caring (socio-emotional)
  • re-enact interactions with their own caregivers, family, and friends (cognitive reframing)
  • prepare for a sibling (rehearsal)

Regardless of a child’s gender, these skills are all valuable life lessons. In carrying, holding, feeding, and rocking a baby doll, children are practicing being loving to others. They may be modeling how they remember being taken care of as a baby, or how they see adults in their world caring for children. Just as children copy parents talking on the phone, working in the kitchen, vacuuming, etc., doll play is no different. It is children’s way to understand and begin to make the world their own by practicing these everyday events.

Doll play is also a way for children to re-enact things that have happened in their lives. Doing so allows them to increase their understanding of the events. They can also take on the opposite role, which allows them to see things from another’s perspective (SUCH an important skill to acquire!). Many times children will enjoy taking on the adult role in order for them to feel a sense of control and power. This makes complete sense because children have very little control over their world (for some necessary and good reasons). Giving a child the chance to have some power and control in play allows them to give it a try in a safe way.

Playing with baby dolls is also a wonderful way for young children to prepare for the birth of a sibling. Parents can model ways to appropriately touch and care for an infant which can give the sib-to-be a taste of what they can expect. Also, once the baby arrives, the new big-sib can care for their own baby doll right alongside mom and dad. This can be particularly helpful since it is quite normal (for obvious reasons) for the older sibling to not get as much attention once the baby arrives. Being able to have their own activity – but still feel connected to the parent(s) and family – can help a child ease into having an additional member in the family.

Some children will prefer to play out these same scenarios with other stuffed toys or miniatures because they feel better connected to them or they need the play to be more removed (less real to the actual situation) than playing with baby dolls. I’m mentioning this because I don’t want parents/caregivers to think that just because a child doesn’t play with baby dolls they can’t learn and practice these skills. But I do believe that baby dolls offer children something unique that other toys just can’t do.

Check out this inspiring post about one mom’s quest to teach her three young boys how to someday care for a baby by modeling it with their dolls. Seriously, this post is amazing…you may need tissues.

We hope you have enjoyed our take on how you can use baby dolls to promote kids’ development! How have your kids benefited from playing with dolls? We’d love to hear your story!

About the Authors:

Christie is a mama to one precious kiddo (15 months) and an occupational therapist to many. Her blog, Mama OT, is a place where she shares helpful tibdbits learned from life as both a mom and a pediatric OT. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Twitter for more tips on how to promote your child’s development and help them have fun along the way!

Katie is a a mom to two little ones (E, almost 4, & Ev, 21 months) and a licensed, credentialed pediatric speech-language pathologist (when she finds the time). She blogs at Playing With Words 365, sharing information about speech & language development, intervention strategies, therapy ideas & tips, and even a little about her family and their life too. Follow along on Facebook or Pinterest for more speech-language ideas and tips.

Laura is a mother of two and a clinical psychologist specializing in children and play therapy. Her blog, PlayDrMom, is dedicated to promoting the importance of play and strengthening relationships with children. Follow her on Pinterest and Facebook for even more tips on parenting and playing.

Want more handy tips and tricks to help the kids in your life? Then subscribe to Mama OT by clicking "Subscribe!" on the homepage so you can receive new posts via email. And be sure to keep up with all of Mama OT's tips and info shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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52 thoughts on “Why Kids Should Play with Baby Dolls (YES, even BOYS!)

  1. Pingback: Why Kids Should Play with Baby Dolls (yes, even boys!) – a collaborative post with Mama OT and Playing with Words 365 | PlayDrMom

  2. Wonderful helpful post. One of my favorite pictures I took while working in the church nursery was a 2 year old boy cuddling and feeding a doll. He multitasked – talking on a play phone and encouraged a little girl to cook something in the play kitchen. It just seemed like they were a happy little couple. Both are from large families and I’m sure cuddling a baby is nothing new for them. All imaginary play is beneficial for children. Great post!

  3. Pingback: Why EVERY Child Should Have a Baby Doll - Playing With Words 365

  4. I was recently on work placement at a childcare centre and I set up a baby doll play experience. I made some beds for the dolls out of cardboard boxes, stuck pictures of babies on little empty plastic bottles and brought in some old baby clothes (from an opp-shop.) The children had a wonderful time and I was surprised at how may of the boys enjoyed the experience.

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  7. I cannot AGREE more with this post!!!! I just recently did a 3 part blog mini-series on the importance of pretend play. As an SLP I am a HUGE advocate of play therapy and love love love to watch my own son play with is stuffed animals, dolls and yes even cars in our doll house! Ha! His imagination is endless and it is amazing to what and learn from our own children! Thank you so much for this post. I am DEFINANTELY sharing on my FB page and must feature your post with a direct link to this page on my blog for my readers! LOVE IT!!! Great job everyone!

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  9. Awesome post mamas!!! I insisted on my son having a baby doll for his Christmas, one year.
    He loves his baby. He takes her to bed with him and feeds her a bottle while we read books.
    I have been meaning to get out some of his preemie clothes for the doll. Thanks for the motivation!

    • Thanks! Especially grateful to Laura and Katie for their contributions as well in order to make it a well-rounded article.

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  16. Love it, thanks for sharing. I’m going to share this with my husband, and my teen daughter who give my 7yo son a hard time about these exact things. He has an almost 4 yo sister who leads most of their play. He’s an easy going mellow kind of guy. I think it sucks that society tries to dictate to these young boys what is proper and what is not. They always hear things like that’s girly, your a sissy, toughen up, big boys don’t cry, etc. Then they get older and all they hear from their girlfriends/wife is soften up, show your emotions, be more sensitive. It’s so confusing and a sad situation. I honestly love it when I see a grown man cry, so I am all about allowing my son to play how and with what he wants to. I hope it is this type of experimenting that will allow him to be as sweet and sensitive to someone special up the road as his is now. I love my little man. 🙂

    • As a woman you can’t know what it’s like to grow up male. If a boy is allowed to play with girls’ toys – well, if the other boys find out he’ll be teased unmercifully. Although it’s true that playing with dolls won’t turn someone gay who isn’t, or make him a wimp, that’s not really the point – he’ll inevitably be unhappy due to being teased, and he will be teased. What you’re advocating is forcing a kid to be a social experiment for people who won’t personally experience any fallout. This shouldn’t be done. It’s a bad idea, put forward mostly if not exclusively by women who can’t understand the hell they would put boy through – they can’t understand any more than a man could know anything about what it’s like to grow up female.

      • Dave, thanks for taking the time to comment and I understand where you’re coming from. It sounds like you are referencing boys who are older such as elementary age. I can’t speak to that age, but I do know that this article primarily referenced the benefits of boys playing with dolls between the ages of approximately 1-4 years of age. I can speak from experience when I say that providing my 1 1/2 year old son a baby doll to play with as part of his collection of toys helped tremendously with preparing him for the arrival of his baby brother (which took place 6 weeks ago). It also helped develop his pretend play skills as he learned to pretend to feed the baby and comfort the baby. All of these factors were discussed in the article. Like I said, I understand where you’re coming from and each person has their own level of comfort related to this topic. The three of us who contributed to this article wanted to be able to provide our insights related to this topic, and then readers are encouraged to take this information into consideration as they decide how they want to approach the topic with their own children. Thanks again for stopping by!

      • Dave – I also don’t in any way want to negate your feelings or experiences. However, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that a boy who plays with dolls will “inevitably” be either unhappy or even teased. I think it depends on your social environment, your family, and the time period in which you grew up, to at least some degree. My hippie parents never forced or even specifically encouraged my brothers to play with dolls. They simply permitted them to play with dolls when and if they wanted to and did so with zero judgment. One of my brothers showed no interest in dolls whatsoever. My youngest brother did and even asked for a doll he saw in a toy store. My parents bought him that doll when he was probably about 5 or 6 yo and he loved it! I still remember he named his doll “Crystal” (so cute!) and used to pretend to feed her, put her to bed, bathe her, feed her, etc. No one in my family had any problem with this – not my parents, my sisters, our other brother, or grandparents. My brother had friends over – male and female – and was never teased about his doll. He took his doll out in public and I don’t recall any negative comments – and neither does he. My brother is now in his 30’s and had his first child last year – a beautiful baby girl. He’s an extremely involved, nurturing father and I’ve honestly thought that perhaps his experiences with Crystal helped encourage and develop these instincts and behaviors early on! Yes, we had nonjudgmental, accepting, hippie parents and we are also from a particularly liberal urban area in California, so I understand that our childhood was different than most. But that’s my point, it’s not “inevitable” that boys will suffer from playing with dolls or that they’ll be teased.

        I have worked with young children for over 20 years and I’ve seen boys play with dolls in many different environments including schools, hospitals, day care facilities, private homes, residential tx facilities, group homes, and psychiatric facilities. I work with children who’ve been diagnosed with “severe emotional disturbances”, most of whom have been abused and/or neglected. I can’t begin to express how important playing with dolls can be for them – and how they’ve done so largely without any teasing or judgment. Dolls can help children of any gender learn about self care, hygiene, nutrition, healthy physical boundaries, and appropriate, safe expression of all types of feelings, among many other things. Dolls can help soothe children and can also help them process abuse and learn healthy coping mechanisms.
        I’ve worked in very gritty and impoverished urban areas, so-called “tough neighborhoods” for sure, and even there I’ve not heard much teasing, particularly not in recent years. I think times have changed when it comes to this subject, at least in a general sense. Perhaps attitudes about boys playing with dolls have changed as there’s been an increased societal awareness abt bullying and avoiding negative gender stereotypes? I’m not entirely sure but it’s a welcome change.

        I worked with one young boy who I am thinking of specifically while writing this. He had suffered through horrible physical abuse and neglect and, as a result, his verbal skills were almost nonexistent despite the fact that he was about 5 yo. This little guy had an understandably hard time making friends and was very wary of the adults trying to work with him also. He avoided eye contact and barely communicated, keeping to himself as much as he could. He was quiet, shy, and very reserved despite our efforts to include him and help him interact. I was watching him through a window one day when I saw he was carrying something with both arms. Upon looking more closely I saw he was cradling and whispering to a baby doll! The doll he was holding was old and had no clothes on anymore (it’s jammies had long since disappeared into one of our toy boxes or lockers) and, in fact, only had one arm and no head! But no matter how shabby that doll looked to my eyes, this little boy had a look of love in HIS eyes as he cuddled that doll in a manner more animated than any behavior I’d ever seen from him. He very lovingly patted the doll, cradled, cuddled, and held it. I watched as he walked to the water fountain and gave the doll a pretend drink (straight from the tap into the doll’s hollow body.) That sweet little boy’s first “friend” at our facility was basically a plastic doll torso! But he loved it and made a connection with it. And I’m happy to report that was the beginning of that boy’s progress. From then on he opened up more and began to smile, communicate, and blossom. This wasn’t a social experiment foisted on him by naive women with good intentions, this was a naturally occurring behavior for him (and the same goes for my brother – no one forced or even encouraged him to even pick up a doll) and it seemed to help him tremendously.

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  18. Thanks for this great article. When I began at an early intervention clinic in 2008, the first thing I purchased was dolls. Then I set up stations for bathing, dressing and feeding the dolls, and all the children in the program wanted to play with the dolls. These were children 18 mo. – 3 years, and they loved these activities, plus improved their cognitive skills, expressive & receptive language skills, and social skills while playing with dolls. Every school and clinic should include dolls in play, and yes, for both the girls and the boys!
    (Washable dolls are best and you can also find dolls that reflect the different ethnicities you have in your classroom.)

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  25. My son has one of my old dolls he pulls out occasionally when big sis is playing with hers. Never thought of it, but he did take off the doll’s clothing before he started doing his own. I might need to get a few large button tops for the doll so he can work on those button skills he struggles with!

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  32. Thanks a lot for your post.I have 18months old son.I think doll is seem need to my son but I didn’t have necessary information to explain why it’s necessary for my son.
    I’m very happy also when I read your post.
    Thanks again once more!!!
    ( i’m not good at English so…)

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  36. What a good read! We always knew doll play was a great thing at Petalina, but you have managed to put together so many benefits – brilliant! I think all Dads need to be given this to read 🙂 and then maybe all those tiny boys will have a chance to play with one.

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  38. I think this article is long overdue, and very helpful to parents! Thank you for organizing the benefits of playing with dolls into very clear and realistic categories. Parents can learn so much from this and feel empowered to say “yes, my little boy can play with dolls for all these reasons – it’s good for him!”

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So, whadya think?