• Weird History

The Dystopian Program Of "Practice Babies" Where Orphan Infants Were Used To Train Expectant Mothers

The best way to train mothers is to use real children, right?  At least that was the guiding principle during the first half of the 20th century when "practice babies" were used in home economic programs around the country. Babies from orphanages were put to work, so to speak, taking part in an experiment of sorts while receiving nurturing and attention from numerous women on a daily basis. The infants were called domecon babies - a mash-up of the words domestic and economy - and even given the last name Domecon to define them. The children were leased out as practice babies for home economics students. Unfortunately, these babies lost their identities and any sort of attachment to a single mother figure in the process.

These courses on "mothercraft" - the scientific art of child-rearing - were conducted to teach and domesticate young women motherhood and other domestic skills could be learned just like any other science. The earliest mothercraft courses were based in lectures and training in skills like needlecraft as well as motherhood by using dolls. As the courses continued to develop, however, there were criticisms that simulated infant care wasn't sufficient. This led to the use of real-life infants in the classes - practice babies. 

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  • The Babies Would Be Cared For By Numerous Women A Day

    Although it varied depending upon the program, practice babies could be cared for by as few as eight and as many as 30 "mothers" at a time. In rare instances, one mother could have a baby for several days, but it was just as likely one woman would put the baby down for a nap and another would be there when the infant awoke. The length of time a baby would be in the care of the home economics class varied as well.  It could last 30 weeks or one to two years

  • Photo: Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Babies Were Fed A Strict, Scientifically Engineered Diet

    Many of the babies that entered the practice baby program were mal- or undernourished, and the food they were given by the student mothers benefited them greatly. The regimented and scientific diet emphasized nutritious foods and scheduled feedings. Children like Bobby Domecon were essentially saved by the program, arriving in a sickly state but thriving during the two years he spent as a practice baby. 

  • Photo: Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    If A Baby Became Ill, The Student Mothers Lost Points

    Just like the regimen for the baby was strict, the student mothers were also held to incredibly high standards. If a baby developed a cold, the  mother got a demerit. If he or she got colic, more demerits. At the University of Nebraska - where students took care of the infant for one week at a time - it was only acceptable for the mother pro tem to touch the baby, but even then, "fondling" was to be kept to a minimum. The constant change-up and relearning of basic skills also meant that babies like Kathryn Marie were the recipient of novice care on a weekly basis. 

  • The Babies Were Used In Practice Houses And Apartments

    To create the mothercraft and domestic experience, home economics classes had entire houses and apartments to maintain. The practice babies were kept at the houses or apartments and cared for on a regular schedule by numerous women. The locations themselves created "a strange, artificial world." The apartment was stripped of anything that could be deemed cozy or comforting.