Weird History The Horrifically Dystopian Program Of "Practice Babies," Where Orphan Infants Were Used To Train Expectant Mothers, Then Abandoned  

Melissa Sartore
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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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Photo:  Cornell University Library/flickr/Public Domain

Orphaned Babies Were Contracted Out To Local Universities

Universities like Cornell and Eastern Illinois State Teachers' College ventured out to local orphanages to find babies to use for practice. They entered into formal agreements with the institutions, basically leasing children for a time or until one side was unhappy with the arrangement. 

There were a few instances where young children were willingly given over to a university by an unwed mother ill-prepared to take care of her child but not willing to give him or her up completely. One child in at the University of Nebraska was handed over for 30 weeks.  The class that took care of her knew "that her people are very poor, practically destitute. The care of baby Kathryn Marie will receive in the training school will probably be far better than that which she could be given at home during the same time period."

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Photo:  Cornell University Library/flickr/Public Domain

The Program Had Good Intentions But Fostered Emotional Detachment

Little attention was paid to practice babies when they were first used, but as media attention grew, there was increased controversy. The intent of the programs was to train mothers and to help children in need, "at the orphanage, there were not enough hands, and in this program, there were too many."

In 1954, the Child Welfare Department in Illinois looked at the program at Eastern Illinois State College and cried foul, calling it "not a normal setting." Other critics like Mrs. Babette Penner, director of the Women’s Services Division of United Charities, cautioned about the "anxieties there are in a child who is given a bottle in 12 or more pairs of arms." Former practice babies like Shirley Kirkman echo this, claiming she has spent her life unable to love and "dead inside" from the lack of forming strong relationships during the first years of her life.

Because no records were maintained on the infants that would allow for follow-up research, it's impossible to know how many of the children may suffer from these issues. However, psychiatrists warn "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."

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Photo:  Cornell University Library/flickr/Public Domain

Domecon Babies Were Highly Desirable When It Came To Adoption

There is evidence babies who received special attention in a home economics program were in demand when it came to adoptions. In 1929, Rebecca Murphy, a practice baby at the University of Maine, was sought out by 35 applicants. The babies had been well taken care of and were in good health (both desirable characteristics), and "prospective adoptive parents in this era desired Domecon babies because they had been raised according to the most up-to-date scientific principles." 

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Photo:  Cornell University Library/flickr/Public Domain

Babies Were Given Last Names Derived From Their Practice Status

In the interest of anonymity, the children were given the surname that indicated their position as a practice baby. At Cornell University, the children were named Domecon - for domestic economics - and at Eastern Illinois State College, they were given a last name of North or South, indicating the building at which they were raised. At the University of Nebraska and others, the last names of babies were simply kept from the student mothers and they went by first names only.