Virtual babies teach real-life lessons

An innovative programme facilitated by the Letterkenny Women’s Centre has given students at two secondary schools in the town a first-hand glimpse into some of the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood.

An innovative programme facilitated by the Letterkenny Women’s Centre has given students at two secondary schools in the town a first-hand glimpse into some of the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood.

“I’m wrecked,” Errigal College student Dara wrote on day four of the project. “The baby’s had me up roughly every two hours. This is harder than I thought, between half-hour bottle feeds and screaming.”

Students at Errigal College and Coláiste Ailigh recently took home very special baby dolls for a long weekend. These lifelike dolls, provided by the company Life Choice in Liverpool, were programmed to simulate breathing and also to coo and cry, just like a real baby. When they cried, the students had to feed them, or change their nappies, or simply comfort them in order to calm their cries – again, just like a real baby.

And just like real babies, these dolls were on their own schedule.

“Aleah woke at 11.35 until 12.40 tonight,” Errigal College Anita wrote on day three of the project. “I was lying in bed crying because I had just had enough. It was such hard work on top of all the other work I had going on.”

The virtual babies were programmed to start behaving like babies at 5 pm on the Thursday the students collected them at the women’s centre, and were programmed to be quiet during school hours on Friday, when they were left in a classroom that doubled as a virtual crèche on the day. But once school was over and the weekend began, the dolls behaved just like babies again.

Errigal College student Anita Rosney’s virtual baby was “crying, crying, crying” on Friday evening, she said. She got the baby settled down, but at 3 am the baby started crying again, waking Anita from a sound sleep.

“I got up and didn’t know where to go,” Anita said. The baby woke Anita’s family, too. So Anita finally took the baby into the sitting room, where they both slept.

“It was just hard work,” she said.

What the experience taught the students was “way beyond what you could do with books,” said Michael McMenamin, biology teacher and Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) coordinator at Errigal College.

He said while just 20 young women in the college took home the dolls, the whole school community was aware of the challenges their classmates faced.

“It wasn’t just confined to 20 girls,” Mr. McMenamin said. “It had a wider effect, which is even better.” The students who participated had either completed or were currently taking the sexual health education course that the women’s centre is offering in the college.

Anne McHugh, Errigal College principal, said caring for the virtual babies taught the students the difficulties of being a teen mother and lone parent.

“As the weekend went on and they weren’t getting any sleep, it was difficult,” she said. “Right down to a woman I think they all decided it was certainly best to postpone motherhood for a long time, which is the point – to allow them to see how difficult it is.”

“It really brought home to them that they’re not ready to have babies,” said Eilish McArt, coordinator of the Sexual Health Education Project at the Letterkenny Women’s Centre. The project is funded by the Health Service Executive (HSE) Crisis Pregnancy Programme.

The participating students learned other unpleasant lessons as well. Anita and a classmate were walking down the street pushing their dolls in buggies – the students were required to use appropriate means to transport the dolls from one place to another – when boys in a passing bus yelled out the window at them. “Sluts,” the boys shouted.

Other students, who took home dolls whose skin was dark, were the target of racist comments.

One student “had an awful lot of racial abuse shouted at her,” said Roisin Kavanagh, chairperson of the Letterkenny Women’s Centre. “It gave her an insight into what can happen to people of different nationalities.”

The project isn’t quite over. The dolls monitored the care they received and Life Choice will issue reports on the number of times care was provided, on requests for care that were not addressed and on whether the virtual baby was held in the wrong position or handled too roughly.

“Each student will get the result of the care level,” Roisin said. She said the women’s centre hope to secure funding to run the programme again next year.

Roisin and Eilish also wanted to acknowledge the contributions of the staff at the participating schools, particularly Mr. McMenamin and Celine Gallagher at Coláiste Ailigh, and of the students’ parents and families.

“We needed parental consent,” Mr. McMenamin said. “This was going to disturb the house for the weekend.”