Author Explores Lives of 'Practice Babies' Once Raised on College Campuses

Filed under: Adoption, Books for Parents, Celeb News & Interviews

practice babies

This semester, we'll be studying art history, geology and baby-raising. Credit: Getty

It may sound like an episode from the popular MTV hit "Teen Mom," but once upon a time, babies were fed, bathed, read nursery rhymes and rocked to sleep by 18-year-olds on college campuses across the country.

From 1919 to 1969, infants -- called "practice babies" -- were delivered from orphanages to the home economics classrooms of U.S. colleges and universities, where young women were taught the science of mothering, NPR reports.

These "practice mothers" were taught Donna Reed-like domestic arts: cooking, cleaning, running a household and being a mom. According to NPR, the infants were essentially raised by teams of college coeds.

The campus approach to parenting served as the inspiration for author Lisa Grunwald's novel "The Irresistible Henry House," leading her to take a deeper look into what life was like for practice babies and their college-aged "moms."

ParentDish caught up with Grunwald, 50, mom to Elizabeth, 18, and Jonny, 13, via phone from her New York City apartment. An edited version of the interview follows.

ParentDish: How did you discover these "practice babies?"
Lisa Grunwald: I was working on an anthology of letters written by American women at the turn of the century. I was trying to study what life was like for mothers at the time, famous and not, and was seeking the secrets of women who aspired to be Betty Crocker. I expected to find letters about making good casseroles.

But I stumbled on the Corenell University website about home economics. There, I found this snapshot of the most beguiling baby with this roguish grin who had been a "practice baby." His name was Bobby Domecon and he had been cared for by about a dozen women who took turns being his "practice mom." Domecon, is short for "domestic economics." All of the babies at Cornell had the last name: Domecon. At Illinois State University, the babies all had the last name North or South.

PD: What inspired you to write the book, and why fiction?
LG: When I first read about this, I thought it was sort of weird and a little bit creepy. But I was gripped by Bobby's story and wanted to know more. So, I found out he'd arrived malnourished, very scrawny and not healthy, but that by the time he turned 4 months old in the "practice baby" setting, he was robust and obviously much healthier. I wanted to explore this further, but there was no real information on what happened to the babies after they were returned to the orphanages as toddlers and then were adopted. I had to make it fiction.

PD: What was the thinking behind colleges setting up "practice baby" programs?
LG: At the time in which this took place, everything was considered a possible opportunity for a scientific approach, and child care was no exception. The practice houses really embraced the idea that you could learn mothering the same way you learned cooking or learned chemistry -- everything was learnable, and systems were really important. I also discovered that many of the babies were in the orphanages because their families had fallen on hard times and couldn't care for their babies. The orphanages and colleges figured this was a better place for babies to be, to be cared by a team of "moms" and with all the scientific parenting practices in place -- a strict diet, regimented nap times, etc.

PD: How widespread was the "practice baby" phenomenon?
LG: I discovered that by the 1950s, there were 40 or 50 colleges and universities throughout the country who had this program in place, or something very similar. According to one 1952 estimate, there were 41 practice baby programs around the country, including ones at Eastern Illinois State, Oregon State University, Iowa State University, East Tennessee State University and Montana State University. At Cornell University for example, eight women students lived with a resident advisor in the "practice apartment."

PD: What where you looking to discover about these babies?
LG: There are all kinds of theories on parenting babies, from Doctor Spock to the idea of attachment disorder for babies who don't form a reliable attachment with one person, and I wanted to see how children developed without that. I found that these babies would have two or three "moms" within the course of a day, and 10 or more all told. They'd take turns being "the mother" so one might put the baby to sleep for a nap, and another would be the "mom" getting the baby out of the crib.

PD: Describe how the classes worked.
LG: At Cornell, "Practice, 126," was a required course for a Bachelor of Science in home economics. Half a dozen or more students worked rotating shifts of five weeks each, weighing and measuring, feeding and changing, taking the baby out for walks and losing sleep when he cried at night. The babies were supplied by child welfare groups and leased on contract by the universities before they were eventually returned to the orphanages and put up for adoption. The "moms" were very proud of their role and even kept scrapbooks of the baby's milestones.

PD: What has happened to the practice babies?
LG: Adoption records were hard to come by and there was no evidence, because the babies weren't followed and studied as they grew up. Just a couple weeks ago, I got my first call from a woman who said her mom was one of the practice moms, but I haven't had a chance to follow up yet. So, because I couldn't find out what happened to them, I figured it would be better to try to imagine what happened. It makes a much yummier novel.

PD: What discoveries did you make about parenting from studying the practice babies?
LG: When I first heard about this, I imagined I would discover a cautious tale about over-parenting or under-parenting, or something that would show me if I did right or wrong as a mom with my own two kids. I considered myself the opposite of a helicopter mom when they were little.

But I discovered that the theories on parenting are always changing. During the early part of the century, the thinking was that virtually anything could be improved by science, so, if transportation, communication and health could, why not motherhood? And there was no evidence that this was wrong, as most of the babies were returned to the orphanages physically healthier then when they arrived.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.