The Baby Borrowers: Reality TV gone too far?

Cross-posted at BlogHers Act

The Baby BorrowersNBC’s new reality show “The Baby Borrowers” takes five teenage couples through a crash course in adulthood tasking them with responsibilities such as a house payment, a job, and for three days, the care of a baby (and later, a toddler, pre-teen and elderly person). Many bloggers and others are up in arms over infants being separated from their parents for so long for a so-called “social experiment” saying it is irresponsible television and some have even called it child abuse.

Although my stomach lurched when I first heard about this show with a catchy name and the slogan “It’s not TV. It’s birth control!” and had no intention of watching it, I decided that if I was going to write about it with any sort of authority I really needed to take a look at least some of it. I watched the second half of the first episode, when the parents dropped off their infants to the teenage couples, and most of the second episode which also dealt with the couples caring (or not) for the babies and their first days going to work outside the home.

As I watched it one word kept coming to mind: exploitation. The whole show reeked of exploitation – exploitation of the infants and of the teens. I’ve read people argue that it’s not like these babies were kidnapped. After all, their parents willingly signed up to participate and handed them over for the show. But my concern is not what the parents’ opinion or thoughts on participating were or that safety measures were all in place, it is that the babies had no say in the matter. They weren’t able to voice their feelings and say, “No, I don’t want to leave you, Mommy and Daddy, and go live with strangers who know nothing about babies for three days.” They were only able to cry, and cry they did. These poor babies had no idea how long their parents would be gone, or really if they’d ever return. My heart broke every time one of them cried, was called “it” (which happened on many occasions), was told to “starve” (as one was when he wouldn’t eat), or was juggled about haphazardly.

Yet not all of the show consisted of upset crying babies. There were happy times for them as well and a few of the teenagers really seemed to rise to the occasion and take their parenting role seriously. But we’ll never know what really went on behind the scenes, how much was edited or how NBC’s “social experiment” will affect these little people in the immediate future or further down the road.

Zero to Three, a national nonprofit multidisciplinary organization who’s mission is “to support the healthy development and well-being of infants, toddlers and their families,” issued a response to The Baby Borrowers citing studies that have been done on babies who have been through prolonged separation from their family. Here is just a bit of it:

For the past 80 years, many studies have shown unequivocally that babies and toddlers suffer when they are exposed to this kind of prolonged separation from family and left with people that they do not know or love. As all parents know, babies and toddlers are very distressed by separation. They cry, cling, and search for their parents. The longer the separation, the more upset they become. Some children are unable to sleep and refuse to eat. The responses routinely last long past the child’s reunion with the parent. Prolonged separations heighten young children’s separation anxiety and damage their trust that their parents will be available to protect and care for them. Children can become angry and rejecting of their parents after being reunited with them, damaging the fabric of the child-parent relationship.

Studies show that babies and toddlers need to feel safe and secure in order to form a positive sense of self, to form healthy relationships, and to feel confident to explore their world. This sense of security is dependent on the availability and stability of their trusted primary caregivers. Being separated for a three-day period from a parent or trusted, familiar adult, and being thrust into the care of a total stranger who has no experience with the child—how he or she is comforted, likes to be fed, held, etc.—and who has no experience caring for young children at all, can be very stressful for the child.

Due to her concern for the “present and future emotional health of these babies,” Jan Hunt of The Natural Child Project wrote an open letter to NBC. Here’s a clip of it:

Babies do not have the mental capacity to anticipate the return of a mother who has gone; they cannot use imagination or project into the future. Research consistently shows that babies separated from their mothers have skyrocketing cortisol levels. This is neurotoxic, damaging brain tissue in the prefrontal lobe areas that regulate emotion, leading to a lifetime vulnerability. When cortisol is produced due to emotional stress, the next stressful experience creates an even larger surge of cortisol. By the time a stressed child reaches adulthood, he is likely to overreact to all stressful situations, making it harder to cope with life’s challenges. For all these reasons, babies and young children should be kept as stress-free as possible, to protect their future psychological and physical health.

As traumatic as this experience will surely be for these babies and children, the effects will not end when they return home. Will their parents then understand and empathize with their inevitable sadness and regressed behavior? Probably not, because few parents are aware of the critical importance of early childhood experiences. There is every reason to believe that this kind of trauma will have long-term effects, making it harder for these children to trust their parents or indeed, anyone else.

Ashlee at Mama’s Nest says, “I can not imagine what would motivate parents to put their babies through this… oh, wait, it’s America- anyone wanna guess how much money they made? ::end rant::”

I actually had the same thought as Ashlee, but according to The Washington Post article, “NBC says the families who came on the show did not get paid to appear.” Really? Wow. That leaves me wondering if not money, then what were their motivations?

The blogger at RunningAmuck wrote, “Watching all those mamas hand over their precious babies to total, very inexperienced and self-absorbed, strangers… left me with a knot in the pit of my stomach. I could not even imagine doing it myself. The parents did get to watch via cameras and there were professional nannies at each home to monitor the safety of the child. They were not to step in unless the baby was in danger. Slight comfort. I had tears welling up every time I watched one of the parents say goodbye to their babies.”

On Mom Exchange jencct wrote, “While I am quite interested to see how things pan out, I also wonder [what] parents in their right mind would “lend” their six-eleven month olds to teenagers who have no clue about babies! I guess I’m not their target market. I could not even think about leaving my kids with other people!”

So what could motivate a parent to leave her child in the care of strangers? The publicity and exposure? The chance to get their little one noticed? According to Natalie Nichols, one of the mothers who gave up two of her children – daughter Etta (6 months) and son Benjamin (2) – for the show, it was because she was a teenage mother herself and says it was that experience that motivated her to let her children be a part of the show. She wanted the teens to learn how hard it really is to be a parent. Lil Sugar blog has an interview with Natalie and The Washington Post posted an article about Natalie, which contained some very surprising information (at least to me) about her being a breastfeeding and co-sleeping mom.

Natalie describes not sleeping for the three days that Etta was with Sean and Kelsey. “It was harder with Etta being there than Benjamin,” she said, “[Etta] was more needy so I had to really supervise.” Because Natalie was nursing Etta at the time of the show, she was pumping and sending milk over to the teen house. As preparation for the show, Natalie and Chet had to make sure that Etta would take milk from a bottle.

On screen, the cameras show Etta crying for much of the episode, frustrating her young caretakers. Off screen, though, Natalie says Etta was happy during the day. Nighttime was a different story. Etta, normally a co-sleeper, wouldn’t settle alone in a crib, so Sean had to stay up holding her all three nights. After several hours of watching the caregivers’ frustration escalate, Natalie went over to have a little chat with Sean and Kelsey. After that, Natalie says, Sean stepped up and put Etta’s needs ahead of his own.

So, what happened to Etta after the show? “You would have never known she had been there. She was not traumatized. It was like she made a new friend,” said Natalie, who gave Sean a cast made from Etta’s hand as a gift.

I’m glad that doing the show didn’t seem to have an effect on her, but no comment on whether or not she may have been traumatized. I mean, how can she really know if it will have a lasting effect on her?

Although Etta was a breastfed and co-sleeping baby, from what I saw on the show there was no mention of pumped breastmilk or that she was used to co-sleeping. I feel like NBC had the chance to educate teenagers (who they claim was their target demographic for the show) that breastmilk is a healthy, normal way to feed a baby, but they dropped the ball (yet again). They did, however, show the teenage boys shopping on the formula aisle in the grocery store. Now that I think about it, I didn’t notice if any formula companies sponsored the show, as I TIVO’d it and skipped over commercials, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. I don’t know why I would expect NBC to redeem themselves by discussing breastfeeding on the show (which might be a big reality check for these teens – breasts have a function other than to look good in a shirt), but I had hopes there’d be some sort of positive message to come from all of this.

A comment from Asia84 on Lil Sugar‘s blog asks the question that I want answered too, “Has anyone thought about how the infants themselves feel???? One minute, I was with mommy and daddy, and I had my favorite binky. Life was grand. Then, next thing I know I’m being handed over to this pretty girl and this guy who looks at me funny. Do I have applesauce on my nose?? I’m teething, so I DON’T wanna eat, but I’m hungry, so I’m gonna cry. I want my mommy. I want my mommy. I want my mommy. I’ll even settle for daddy. I just want my mommy!”

Angie Felton at Parent Dish believes there are other, better ways to educate teens on the immense responsibility of raising children.

I’m all for educating teens on child care getting rid of the notion that parenting is one big ball of baby powdery fun, but there ARE better ways than dumping a baby off with complete strangers for a television show. Working at a childcare center, volunteering at a church nursery or preschool, or even babysitting are all good ways to get a small idea of what life as a parent is like.
What exactly is going on with our society that makes babies fair game for a reality series, anyway?

I think NBC made some poor choices in creating this show the way that they did. They could’ve taught responsibility without exploiting babies. And then there is the question is this show reaching it’s targeted demographic and is it influencing their choice of whether to have children now or to wait? Or are teens going to watch it, think “hey, that doesn’t look so hard” and have babies anyway?

Edited on 7/4/08 to add:
If you are interested in voicing your opinion regarding The Baby Borrowers to NBC, please take a look at Attachment Parenting International’s response (where they state the show is in direct violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child) and they also give the contact information for Mr. Jeffrey Zucker, president and CEO of NBC.

Did you watch the show? What do you think? What would you do?

Edited on 7/15/08 to add: If you are interested in reading more about this show and those involved, I just posted an interview with Natalie Nichols, the AP mom who’s two children appeared on The Baby Borrowers.