Playing with dolls is thought to hone the maternal instinct in young girls who dream of being mothers one day, but researchers at Ohio State University say it can be useful in predicting how expectant parents will cope after birth and likewise iron out potential conflicts.

“The extent to which couples support or undermine each other’s interactions with the doll predicts their co-parenting behavior a year later,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University. “We saw the same kinds of behaviors between parents when they were interacting with their baby that we saw a year earlier with the doll.”

Researchers videotaped the interaction between 182 couples in their third trimester of pregnancy as they played with a doll, role-play that researchers say reflects their co-parenting, or ability to work together to bring up the child.

The custom-made doll was essentially an infant sleeper stuffed with seven to eight pounds of rice to resemble the weight of a newborn with a green doll’s head sewn on top.

Researchers visited couples’ homes and, in the role of a nurse, presented the couple their doll. In a five-minute session separated into four parts, parents played with the doll separately, then together, and lastly they discussed their experience.

Looking over the videotapes, researchers looked for intuitive parenting behaviors, warmth and structure of play.

Nine months after the birth of the baby, a different team of researchers examined videos of the couples to assess their co-parenting while they played with their babies.

While the quality of co-parenting was varied, with some new parents complementing each other’s natural abilities and others squabbling over how to hold the baby, the consistency of each couple’s individual reaction to the doll and the baby was remarkable, according to Schoppe-Sullivan.

She and her colleagues remarked that couples’ co-parenting abilities do not necessarily reflect their romantic relationship with each other, for participants had been interviewed about their overall happiness in their relationships outside of doll play.

Although this may be the first time this Swiss method has been tested in the US, Schoppe-Sullivan says parents took it seriously and lead author Lauren Altenburger, a doctoral student in human sciences at Ohio State, remarked on its importance for the health of the family.

“Co-parenting has consistently been linked to child outcomes. When parents fight and undermine each other’s parenting, the child suffers,” says Altenburger. “If we can identify couples who may have problems with their co-parenting before their baby is even born, we may be able to intervene.”

The study and participating parents are part of a long term study co-led by Schoppe-Sullivan called the New Parents Project which examines how dual-earner couples react to becoming parents.

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