reborn.com, FUSION

Like any doting mom, Sabrina loves getting her baby girl Jaylah ready for bed. First she undresses her, changes her diaper, and slips her into oh-so-cute baby pajamas. Next she feeds her and gently pats her on the back for a burp. Finally, she places her in her crib, where she will sleep through the night without crying once.

Jaylah does not cry because Jaylah is not real. Jaylah is an eerily lifelike doll.

Sabrina is one of tens of thousands of collectors around the world, mainly women, who buy and sell realistic baby dolls known as “reborns” that they treat like real children. These collectors feed them, change them, dress them, talk to them, and comfort them. They even take them out in public, sometimes passing them off as actual infants.

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While they’re not new—a decade ago, the British documentary My Fake Baby profiled the “mommies” of reborns, raising the internet’s collective eyebrow—the dolls have gained new exposure in the past few years thanks to a burgeoning YouTube community of reborn videos. Popular reborn mommies on the site boast hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

To adults who don’t play with dolls, these women can appear, well, crazy. Which is why most reborn mommies on YouTube add a disclaimer to their channel to the effect of “I know the dolls aren't real.” Instead, they describe their interactions with the dolls as “role-playing,” in the same way a cosplayer might dress up as a superhero for Comic-Con. Their fans understand the dynamic, but when reborn videos reach an audience outside of their niche community, commenters often barrage the moms with insensitive comments.

Comments like “This is weird as f**k.”

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But for the women who love their reborns, which can cost between $200 and $3,000, the dolls are simply a fun distraction and a comforting hobby. And mental health experts don’t see anything wrong with the imaginary mommying. In fact, it even has the potential to do a lot of good.

Since reborns first started being created nearly three decades ago, they’ve been used for therapeutic purposes. The early versions of the dolls, which were made by artists who transformed store-bought vinyl dolls into realistic ones by adding real hair, eyelashes, and weight, were purchased mainly by mothers grieving the loss of a child. But these days, while they still fill an emotional need for some women, most collectors just love playing with them.

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Sabrina is 19 years old and lives in Denmark. She's been collecting reborns since 2010 and makes videos of herself interacting with Jaylah and other dolls as if they were real babies. In one video, Sabrina gives Jaylah a bath using real baby supplies. Jaylah then “poops” (spoiler: it’s pudding) and Sabrina has to clean up the mess. “If you haven't noticed, Jaylah likes to poop a lot!” Sabrina says in the video. She even takes her dolls out in public—sometimes for videos and sometimes for fun. “I like to pretend I am a young mom,” she told me over email.

Sabrina assured me that she knows the dolls aren't real, she just really likes the experience of role-playing. "I love reborns because they make me happy," she says. "There’s something about them, I can't really explain it … I love to hold and cuddle them. And I love to make videos with them. They help me when I'm upset. It's just an amazing hobby."

Sabrina has more than 98,000 YouTube subscribers and most of her videos average 10,000 to 50,000 views—some have garnered as many as 5 million. Once a video reaches a certain number of views, she’ll disable the comments. As the videos reach a mass market, she says, the likelihood of receiving negative comments increases. "I get hate comments every single day," she says. "But I don't really read them. I delete them and block the user."

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For most reborn mommies, the joy their hobby brings is worth putting up with haters.

"They’re only creepy because they’re so real-looking," says Stephanie, a 30-year-old collector and reborn artist in California, with 93,000 YouTube subscribers. She understands the dolls can elicit certain negative reactions—her own dad was repelled at first—but she has given up trying to battle the stigma. "Some people still comment, ‘oh, you're crazy’ or ‘you're psycho’,” she told me over the phone. “I don't actively fight against it because it's a battle you're never gonna win.”

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For Stephanie, the dolls aren't just a hobby—they're also her job. She and her partner make and sell reborns and run a popular reborn YouTube channel, which boasts millions of views. A single doll can take 40 to 60 hours to create, she says, with all the work done by hand. (Fun fact: Jimmy Kimmel’s people recently commissioned a doll from the couple.)

Stephanie says she loves what she does. "I've always loved baby dolls," she tells me. "Every time I get a new doll I get excited over it. They’re cute to look at." In fact, Stephanie says, one of her biggest pet peeves around the hobby is that collectors feel like they need to justify why they own the dolls, to convince other people the hobby is normal. "I see it as a fun collection, and I don't need to explain it.”

But why do onlookers react with so much judgement—disgust, even? After all, adults enjoy other role-playing hobbies, from video games to LARPing, without the same degree of shaming. (Albeit, some shaming.) And many people form emotional attachments to objects, from cars to jewelry to figurines, which our society generally accepts. (Generally.) But an adult who role-plays with dolls? People automatically assume he or she is mentally unstable.

I reached out to psychologists for more insight, and the basic reason may be that adults who play with baby dolls in this way are rare. "Biologically, we are wired to punish non-normative behavior" says Pamela Garcy, a Dallas-area therapist. "It's part of group survival."

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If playing with dolls was suddenly mainstream—like, say, playing Pokemon Go has become—the public’s reaction would likely be more accepting.

The dolls also creep people out because, as Stephanie suggested, they look so real—a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” effect. When we encounter objects that are almost but not quite human, many of us feel uneasy and uncomfortable. For some, reborns may even elicit a low-grade fear.

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"People are expecting a doll to look like a doll and a baby to look like a baby," Garcy explained. Combine this with the rarity factor, and you’ve got a recipe for repulsion.

"The way the person interacts with the doll—even if it's on a make believe level—if the other person assumes it's a baby and then they are mistaken, it goes back to this concept of non-normative behavior and they don't want to be associated with it.”

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But according to Garcy and others, the collectors aren’t actually displaying any problematic behavior—and they may even be deriving genuinely positive mental health benefits.

Jessica is 35 and lives in New Jersey with her mom. The last few years have been rough for the pair—they’ve been homeless off and on—and in 2014, Jessica was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from an earlier trauma. Then, last summer, she discovered reborn dolls and they instantly lifted her spirits.

“I started researching reborns like crazy, and then I started planning for one of my own!” she told me over email. “Then my Mom and I started to take notice that it was helping me, having something else to keep mind off what has happened.”

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She named her first reborn Bella, and says, "Holding Bella is calming, just like holding a newborn baby. It releases the maternal side I think." Jessica is right—according to psychologist Karyn Hall, who practices in Houston, because reborns look and feel real (they are weighted like a newborn), simply holding the doll can release oxytocin, the feel-good bonding hormone.

But Jessica she still doesn't take Bella outside or even tell everyone she knows about her for fear of how people might respond. "I was bullied growing up," she says. Also, "I'm afraid they'll try to have me committed.”  She does have a YouTube channel, which she's trying to grow (it only has a couple subscribers) and loves watching other reborn mommies as well.

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Reborns’ therapeutic potential may even deserve more attention from the mental health community. "I think that what's happening is that, for people who are scared, it is a way of connecting without fear," says Hall, who specializes in trauma, emotion regulation, and coping skills. "There’s no fear of rejection and no fear of not being accepted. There’s a connection, and it's very powerful."

Think of it this way: Elderly patients in nursing homes are often given stuffed animals for comfort and companionship. (Who can forget Paro, the lovable robotic seal from the Netflix series Master of None?) Children are also given dolls and teddy bears to soothe them and end up developing real feelings for them. “That stuffed animal is vested with all kinds of tactile and emotional qualities,” says Carl Pickhardt, a specialist in adolescent psychology based in Austin. “The kid hunkers down with it and they feel warmth and love—there's a huge amount of emotional valence there.”

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Part of that strong emotional connection comes specifically from the make-believe aspect of the interaction. "The role-play becomes very, very important,” says Pickhardt. “If you can create a role-play that it is extremely detailed, that can enhance their reality.”

The same can happen with an adult who role-plays with dolls, the only difference is that we see this type of behavior as non-normative—in part because if feels so childlike, which makes us uncomfortable.

"Why would we not give adults permission to go out in public with their love objects? I don't know," he pondered over the phone. "Maybe there's some kind of prejudice against that. As in, if you are an adult you should just have adult relationships."

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Which is a shame, says Pickhardt.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.