Weighted dolls are fantastic teaching tools for babywearing educators, even those who have ready access to a baby of their own. Dolls never object to extended practice sessions, don’t take naps, pull hair, pop their seats, or need to be bribed to go up – plus, they’re much better at showing newborn positioning than a 25-pound toddler!
Professional demonstration dolls are available from companies like Touch Needs as well as occasionally through retailers or training institutes. These dolls are weighted and shaped to mimic real babies to help facilitate learning and teaching. But at more than $100 each, they just are not in the budget for many educators and babywearing groups, especially those that are are just getting started.
The good news is that it is fast and easy to make a DIY demo doll using readily available supplies – all for as little as $20! Buying supplies in bulk brings down the cost, so this is a great group activity for all the educators or trainees in a chapter/group.
Demo doll-making is an art, and everyone who has made one (or more) probably has his or her own technique. Below, I describe the method that has worked for me. I welcome you to share additional tips and tricks in the comments!
It is important to note that while weighted demo dolls are made from toys, once you modify and weight them them they are no longer toys! Some of the materials used in weighting and finishing dolls pose a choking hazard or could scratch a child. Additionally, the process of weighting stresses different parts of the doll such that they may not survive mistreatment or play. Treat your demo dolls carefully and with respect. Try not to carry them by the head or arms and never allow children to play with them at meetings or at home. Monitor closely for wear and damage and repair promptly if needed.
You will need a variety of materials to make your demo doll. Most of these can be obtained easily at the dollar store, craft store, big box store, etc.
The Doll—Finding the right doll is crucial to success. The easiest doll to find (and what we will use for this project) is the “My Sweet Love Cuddle Baby Doll” 20 inch doll (available at Walmart). These can often be found loose in bins underneath the boxed dolls in the doll aisle. They come in a variety of skin tones and cost about $10 each. Another good option is the 20″ baby doll from Berenguer/JC Toys (available on Amazon.com). Suitable dolls can also be found in consignment shops, on eBay, or purchased as a “Reborn” doll kit. Features to look for include: large enough size (minimum 18” but the bigger the better—24”+ dolls are great for back wrapping; removable head and limbs (attached with zip ties not sewn in place); and a curved bottom (shaped vs. flat—if the doll sits relatively nicely in a chair it’s a good sign it will work well as a demo doll). Don’t forget to look at stuffed animals and other “non-realistic” dolls too!
Weighting Material—My preferred material to weight a demo doll is a mixture of dollar store decorative rocks (generally found in the craft area) and poly pellets (available at craft stores). I use about half a bag of poly pellets and two 2-lb bags of rocks per newborn-sized doll. Decorative rocks will give you a nice heavy doll, but might also make your doll lumpy. Other educators have successfully used pea gravel, aquarium gravel, bbs, etc. Avoid any organic materials such as popcorn or rice as they can deteriorate over time and become a pest hazard.
Zip Ties—used to re-attach the head, other limbs (if needed) and to create knees. These are available inexpensively at the dollar store, big box stores (look in automotive) or on eBay. You need an assortment of sizes including large ones for the head.
Knee High Stockings—I use these to help contain weighting material. They’re optional but inexpensive. Old tights or stockings with runs can be repurposed as well.
Polyester Stuffing/Fiberfill (optional)—Your doll may not need any additional stuffing once you’ve added weighting materials but it is always nice to have a little extra on hand just in case.
Chopstick or Pencil (for stuffing)
Step 1: Disassemble your Doll
Begin by removing your doll’s head by clipping off the tip of the zip tie attaching it to the body. Remove all of the fiberfill stuffing from your doll and set aside to use later. Depending on the doll you choose, there may be some weighting material already inside—this can be saved to repurpose as well.
Look inside your doll to make sure you have access to the hands and feet. Depending on the design you may need to also remove the hands and feet by clipping the zip ties if you wish to weight the legs and arms.
Step 2: Weight the Head
I like to put a small amount of weight in my dolls’ heads to mimic the floppiness of a newborn. It is helpful to have this weight pushed to the front/face area of the head. To achieve this, put the toe of one knee high stocking into the hole in your doll’s head and fold the stocking over the opening. Fill the knee high with poly pellets until the head is about half full (shake it periodically to make more room). Tie off the knee high and trim the excess fabric (this can be saved for another doll, just tie a knot in the end). Fill the rest of the head with fiberfill so that the weighted stocking sits in the face area of the doll.
Step 3: Weight the Hands and Feet
I also like to put a small amount of weight into my dolls’ hands and feet (if possible) to provide realistic drag. Filling the plastic hands and feet with poly pellets provides the perfect amount of weight. Simply pour 1/8 cup or so of poly pellets into each limb and shake until they fall through the holes in the tops of the feet and fill the foot cavity (this process may be slightly different for different dolls but it works great for the “My Sweet Love” dolls). Plug the hole with a bit of fiberfill using your chopstick or pencil so that the beads don’t escape during use. Repeat for each hand/foot.
Step 4: Weight the Body/Create the Knees
Putting the appropriate amount of weight in the appropriate places is crucial to demo doll success. I like to focus the bulk of my weighting material in the seat and lower trunk area of my doll with some additional spread through the upper legs. I use very little or none in the arms and shoulders.
It can be helpful to make packets of your weighting material so it doesn’t move around inside your doll. I like the dollar store decorative rocks because I can leave them inside their net bags and because I can use larger rocks individually through the legs to provide just a little weight in the right places. Your extra knee high fabric can also be used to make small packets of gravel, poly pellets, etc. by tying a knot, filling the knee high up, and then knotting again.
Beginning with the legs, fill each cavity with fiberfill (and a few rocks, if desired) up to approximately the knee area. Tie a zip tie tightly around the doll to create a “knee joint”. This step is optional but will help your doll better achieve ideal positioning (a common problem with demo dolls). Continue filling the legs and body with fiberfill and weighting material. I like to place an entire 2 lb bag of rocks right at the bottom of the butt area with just a thin layer of poly batting between it and the outer fabric for padding and then some additional smaller packets of weighting material above that. Fill the upper portion of the body and arms tightly with fiberfill.
In general, you want to weight a newborn/infant sized demo doll to approximately half the weight you would expect from a real child of that size. So for an 18-22” newborn-sized demo doll, you would want a finished weight of about 4-5 lbs. That is enough weight for the doll to function properly but not so heavy that it puts unnecessary stress on the doll (or on the person who has to carry it around to meetings!). Larger dolls can be weighted a little more.
Step 5: Reattach the Head and Finishing Touches
Using one of your large zip ties (find the right size by comparing it to the one you removed earlier), reattach the head to the body by threading the zip tie through the casing at the neck of the doll and tightening it over the ridge in the bottom of the head. Pull it very tightly to secure. This is the area of most stress on the doll, so monitor it carefully.
Reattach any other limbs if needed.
Clip all of the zip tie ends close to the body of your doll (including the ties at the knees). If desired, you can file down the rough edges to avoid snagging wraps or scratching skin. Dressing your demo doll will also help with this. A NB sized footless sleeper or bodysuit and pants usually work well, or use the clothes that came with the doll. If your doll has a less-than-perfect butt, a cloth diaper may help pad it enough to allow you to get a good seat in a wrap or ring sling.
That’s it! Now go show the world your demo doll in action!