Since the late 1990’s, artists around the world have been honing the craft of “reborning”. That’s what these creators call the lifelike dolls they make, commonly called reborn dolls. Reborn dolls are very different from a typical doll because they have extremely realistic features. In the twenty years since reborn dolls hit the scene, reborners (the artists who build the dolls from kits) have been able to make the dolls look shockingly like the genuine article. With actual human hair and eyelashes, vinyl skin, and weighted bodies, reborn dolls have even been mistaken for real human babies! It’s this very near-realism that draws collectors to the dolls - and disturbs others.
What Makes A Reborn Doll Different?
Reborn dolls look nothing like the baby dolls you can find on the shelves at Target! Each doll is handcrafted by its reborner and is undoubtedly unique, just like its human counterparts. Collectors can customize their doll to create one-of-a-kind features. Reborners hand-paint the dolls, assemble their bodies from kits, and some even add human hair by the strand! Dolls range in cost from $200 to $4,000 each, depending on the level of impressive craftsmanship and customization.
Because the dolls are made unique for each customer, the client can request very specific components. Common add-ons include realistically weighted bodies and limbs, chest/breastplates that look like skin instead of silicone or vinyl, devices that emit a heartbeat sound, and even warming units for added realism! Many clients ask for a baby that matches their own child’s weight, height, and head circumference. Others focus on skin tone, eye color, and hair texture. Some reborn dolls even “breathe” with a motor that makes their chest rise and fall! In every aspect of the reborning process, crafters focus on achieving an extraordinarily realistic appearance.
Who Uses Reborn Dolls?
The reborn doll market is definitely niche! Those who purchase the dolls for themselves usually prefer to be called collectors. They insist that they view their reborn dolls just like any other collector views their hobby. Collectors know the dolls are not living human beings, and many don’t seek outside approval for their interest. Rather, they create accepting communities online where reborners and collectors can connect over their love for reborn dolls. Most collectors dress their dolls; some cuddle them or feed them. Very few bring their doll with them into public settings.
According to Cathy Newcombe, a reborner who runs the website “Reborn Babies UK”, about 15% of dolls are reborn for women who have lost a child. The doll can be used during therapy to help them process their grief. Some nursing homes have even begun using the dolls to provide what reborners call “cuddle therapy” to their aging patients. Memory care patients (those with dementia or Alzheimer’s) are most likely to receive reborn dolls in this setting.
What Benefit Do These People Get From Reborn Dolls?
Houston psychologist Karyn Hall explains that reborn dolls can stimulate the release of oxytocin, that happy bonding hormone that counteracts cortisol, the stress hormone. Even if the user knows the doll isn’t real, it can provide a sort of placebo effect.
"I think that what's happening is that, for people who are scared, it is a way of connecting without fear. There’s no fear of rejection and no fear of not being accepted. There’s a connection, and it's very powerful."
Hall specializes in trauma, coping mechanisms, and teaching healthy emotional regulation. Of course, not all therapists agree with her positive assessment of reborn dolls.
Psychologist Sue Varna, NYU School of Medicine, warns that reborn dolls may cause other psychological issues. If a person begins to use the doll as a prop or the doll takes on a central role in the person’s socialization, it can have a detrimental effect on the doll owner’s psyche. Most grieving parents who use reborn dolls as a form of cuddle therapy reject this notion, stating they are well aware the doll doesn’t replace their deceased child. Instead, the reborn baby (or toddler) becomes a way to remember the child.
Speaking of memory: patients with Alzheimer’s seem to respond positively to reborn dolls. Doctors attest to the powerful calming effect the dolls have on memory care patients. “It’s a familiar role from a time when they were busy and happy,” researcher Lorna Mackenzie explains.
Why Are Some So Disturbed By Realborn Dolls?
The very thing that draws collectors to reborn dolls also repels most others. Realism can be both stunning and unsettling - some collectors even report a feeling of repulsion toward specific reborns. This sense that something just feels “off” is called the uncanny valley effect. It’s the sensation people experience when they encounter something that is almost-but-not-quite human. Most people describe this as an uncomfortable sense of unease; others have an actual fear response to the dolls.
Of course, some people are just bullies. "Biologically, we are wired to punish non-normative behavior," explains Pamela Garcy, a Texas-based therapist. "It's part of group survival." When adults see a child playing with a doll, they recognize the healthy imaginative play as crucial to their development. But with adults, there’s an expectation that indulging one’s imagination with a reborn doll is a sign of delusion. Combine this judgmental approach with the uneasy feeling reborns can create, and it’s easy to understand why the dolls (and their owners) catch so much criticism.
Where Can I Find A Reborn Doll?
Many reborners consider their dolls works of art and sell them on commission. Within the community, makers draw a distinction between lifelike dolls and reborn dolls. Larger companies like Ashton Drake sell lifelike dolls with special features. However, reborn dolls are usually built from kits or repurposed from pre-existing dolls. Some will order Ashton Drake dolls, remove the paint and hair, add extra weight, and recreate new features to suit the client’s preference. This act of personalization is what makes a doll “reborn”. Collectors often purchase their dolls from individual reborners through social media, Etsy, or personal websites. Reborners call these doll marketplaces “nurseries”.
Reborn dolls can be a valid therapeutic tool for people in many different life stages. It’s only when the dolls become a public spectacle that their owners face judgment. They may not be for everyone, but reborners and collectors alike don’t mind. Most are collecting dolls because they like them - and that love won’t change just because others don’t understand the appeal.