The Strange Case of Practice Babies

Cornell University launched its practice baby program in 1919 when child development theories were so rigid they advised shaking the child’s hand before bedtime.

These babies typically had eight “mothers.” And every six weeks, eight more would take their place; planning the child’s nutritious diet, their naps and tending to their every need.

The “practice baby” program was a home economics study.  The babies were cared for by a group of “practice mothers” — young 22-year-old students — in a “practice apartment.”  The babies at Cornell were referred to as Domecon – a surname that meant “domestic economy”.

There were hundreds of babies, mostly children of unwed mothers, who were on loan from orphanages to colleges like Cornell, University of Minnesota and Eastern Illinois State University and many others. Students were able to practice the latest child-rearing theories of the day on living newborns.

It was considered a science. After a year or two, the babies would leave their multiple mothers to find homes in adoptive families.  These were children coming through the welfare system. They didn’t enter the program until they were at least the age of 3 months or sometimes as old as 8 months. They had the best of health-care inspection, an emphasis on nutrition and physical development and all kinds of individual attention.

At Eastern Illinois State University in the 1950s, the state welfare department shut down a practice baby program there when they learned 12 different home economics majors were raising one boy.

In orphanages at that time, there were often simply not enough hands, and in this program, it can now be said that there were too many. No one really thought it through enough or it can be honestly said that they simply didn’t understand the consequences of what was being done to these babies.

By the 1960s, enlightened pediatricians such as Dr Benjamin Spock urged mothers to “trust yourself” in a more hands-on approach with their children.

Practice baby programs were eventually phased out as new research underscored the need for a primary bond with a single caregiver.

The whole program never used real names because the babies were orphans. They were later adopted and no records of their origins were kept.