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'Practice Babies': An Outdated Practice, Rediscovered

From 1919 to 1969, college home economics programs around the country had so-called practice houses or practice apartments where young women learned the domestic arts: cooking, cleaning, running a household.

The college students learned mothering skills by caring for "practice babies" -- infants lent by local orphanages to live at the school.

Lisa Grunwald researched the practice and used it as the premise for her novel The Irresistible Henry House. She says she discovered this use for orphan babies while working on an anthology of letters written by American women when she found a snapshot of "the most beguiling baby with this roguish grin." She learned he had been a practice baby at Cornell University.

"He had been cared for by about a dozen women who took turns being his practice mother," Grunwald tells NPR's Michele Norris.

By the 1950s, there were 40 or 50 colleges and universities throughout the country who had this program in place, or something very similar, Grunwald says.

The baby Grunwald came across was named Bobby Domecon, short for "domestic economics." All of the babies at Cornell took the last name Domecon, and all of the practice babies at Illinois State University had the last name North or South, depending on the building they were raised in.

When I first read about this, I thought it was sort of weird and a little bit creepy.

Grunwald says the babies would come from the orphanage as young as possible, and the mothers would take rotations caring for them. The rotations depended on the college -- sometimes one mother would have a baby a week at a time or 10 days at a time. In others, a mother would put the baby down for a nap, and another student would be there when it woke up. But it was always on a very careful schedule.

"When I first read about this, I thought it was sort of weird and a little bit creepy," Grunwald says. "But, in fact, at the times 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."

Many of the babies arrived at the universities suffering from malnutrition, and they were quickly plumped with good health after their stint in those programs.

Grunwald says she found little evidence of controversy around the practice, with the exception of a 1954 Timemagazine article, where the Illinois state child welfare division found out a child was being raised on campus this way and was extremely disturbed by it.

Grunwald also wanted to find out the long-term effects on someone who is raised this way. She says she talked with various experts and psychiatrists.

"They told me about attachment disorder," Grunwald says. "If a child doesn't form one really tight bond in the first years of life, it sometimes happens that he or she can develop attachment disorder."

But there was no evidence, because the babies weren't followed and studied as they grew up.

"It was really the reason I wanted to write it as fiction because the alternative didn't seem very viable," Grunwald says. "They were returned to their orphanages and they were adopted in due course, the way most children were adopted, which was, at the time, very anonymously.

"While there is some evidence that some parents really wanted a Domecon baby -- because he or she had been raised by scientific methods -- there doesn't seem to have been any way of tracking them or following them. There was never a study done, there were never even records kept."

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