These lifelike dolls are helping women heal

Reborn dolls are displayed at a doll show in Brentwood, England.

The first time Karolina Jonderko held a reborn doll, she was amazed at how lifelike it was.

It not only looked like a newborn baby, but it felt like one, too. It was as heavy as a baby should be. She had to support its neck like a baby. It even smelled like a baby.

“My mind was blown, seriously,” said Jonderko, a photographer based in Poland. “It really feels real.”

These dolls, crafted by artists around the world, can cost hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars. They’re made of vinyl or silicone, and their realistic features can include veins, pores, tears and saliva. Some even have systems that mimic breathing and a beating heart.

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Katarzyna sits with her reborn doll while her children play in a park in Warsaw, Poland.
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A woman caresses the toes on her reborn doll.

Most of the people who own these dolls are collectors. But for some, Jonderko said, the dolls appear to provide a therapeutic benefit. She started her photo project “Reborn” to focus on this powerful emotional response.

One of her subjects, Katarzyna, got a doll after suffering a miscarriage.

“Although she had four other children and of course loves them, she had this emptiness inside,” Jonderko recalled. “She said she was supposed to leave the hospital with a baby in her hands. She started browsing through the internet, looking for ways to deal with this loss, and she found the dolls. And that’s how her doll became a part of the family.”

Jonderko’s photos of the family show them taking the doll with them everywhere, including the park and on vacation.

Katarzyna holds her reborn doll, which she “adopted” after suffering a miscarriage.

One of Katarzyna’s children holds the doll in the stroller.

Katarzyna’s children treated the doll as part of the family.

Katarzyna’s oldest son lies next to the doll during a beach trip in Sianozety, Poland.

Barbara Smolinska originally bought a reborn doll to be a birthday present for her daughter. But when she saw it in person, she decided to keep it for herself.

“I felt so peaceful and relaxed each time when I was holding her,” Smolinska said.

She said the doll has helped her in dealing with stress and overcoming an eating disorder.

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Barbara Smolinska changes her doll’s clothes in Olesnica, Poland.
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A photo album shows the different ways that one woman dressed up her doll.

“When I feel weak, I just hold my doll or change her clothes and take pictures of her, and all my problems and bad feelings go away,” Smolinska said. “It really helps.”

She is now a reborn artist herself, one of the most well known in Poland, and she even has a reborn “nursery” where she repairs other people’s dolls.

“I can see how big of a help they are for my clients who lost their children or cannot have kids or are suffering from depression,” she said. “My clients are always going back to me and saying how much these dolls are helping them.”

A doll’s head is prepared by Smolinska. Every hair is inserted separately with a tiny needle before the finished head is connected to the body.

A doll is baked in an oven to fix the special paint on the vinyl. It can take up to two weeks for Smolinska to make a doll, depending on the order.

Smolinska paints part of a doll’s belly.

A doll is seen in Smolinska’s “nursery” where she also makes repairs. She made it look like a real hospital where babies are treated.

One of Smolinska’s clients, Ewa, lost her baby boy after just 18 days. Smolinska modeled a doll on him based on a photo.

“Since I got the doll, I no longer think about suicide,” Ewa told Jonderko last year.

Ewa and her partner are now adopting a real baby, and the doll has been sold.

“The doll helped her ‘be a fake mother’ for a bit, and it helped her a lot,” Jonderko said. “She needed that back then.”

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Ewa holds a reborn doll in Rzeszow, Poland. She lost her son at 18 days and never got a chance to hold him.
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Smolinska attends to one of the dolls at her “nursery.”

Not everyone is enamored with reborn dolls. The realism can rub some the wrong way.

“There are some people who hate them or don’t like them or find them disturbing,” Jonderko said. It’s the “uncanny valley” concept that we often see with robots: As an artificial being becomes more like a human, it can turn people off.

Smolinska has also seen the dolls make people uncomfortable, but she and Jonderko said the majority of their experiences have been positive.

“Most of the people are really fascinated,” Jonderko said. “They are not reacting like: ’Oh my God, what is this? This is horrible.’ But they are fascinated with how precise they look. They were fooled. They thought it was a real child.”

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Women walk with their strollers in Olesnica. One of the babies is real, and one is a doll.
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The lifelike dolls are sometimes mistaken for the real thing.

That realism can occasionally come with some downsides.

“Once we had a situation on a bus when a doll fell out of a girl’s hands,” Jonderko said. “The whole bus started screaming and the driver stopped the bus. The people dialed 911 for help. We had to explain that it’s just a doll and walk around the bus to show that it’s just a doll.”

Jonderko has also heard of some incidents where a doll was left in a car seat and the police or someone else broke the glass because they thought it was a real baby in distress.

“The women know you have to be careful, because (the doll) just looks like a sleeping baby,” she said.

Smolinska created a Facebook group seven years ago for reborn doll enthusiasts in Poland. Three or four times a year, they meet in person, bringing their dolls with them.

When the doll enthusiasts gathered at a restaurant, there was only one high chair. So the rest of the dolls were left on the floor, puzzling some of the other customers.

A doll is left outside a building in Olesnica.

Smolinska packs her doll in a suitcase because she didn’t want to alarm people on the bus.

Even Jonderko, who’s photographed so many reborn dolls, can be fooled from time to time.

“Now when I see a sleeping baby sometimes, I’m wondering if it’s real or fake,” she said with a laugh. “Especially when I went to a reborn fair in England and there was a real baby sleeping. Most of the people at the fair thought it was a doll because it slept so quietly. They were walking around it saying, ‘I want to buy this one!’ ”

And when you hold a reborn doll, Jonderko said, your mind can play tricks on you.

“I did some experiments with my friends because (Smolinska) gave me one of her dolls,” she said. “At the beginning, people were like, it’s weird. But when we started talking about whatever, they started to pat the doll on the back or put it on their legs and start shaking to calm ‘the baby’ down. I would tell them, ‘Look at what you’re doing now!’ It’s amazing that we humans do these things subconsciously.”

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Ewa holds a doll in Bytom, England.
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Smolinska organized a game during one of the recent gatherings for doll owners: Who can dress up their doll the fastest?

Jonderko hopes her photos can take away some of the stigma that may come with the dolls and the people who own them. She has seen firsthand how they have helped women such as Magda.

Magda had a doll for seven years. She and her husband were having trouble conceiving.

Two months after Jonderko photographed her, Magda said she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy, and the doll ended up in a closet. It was no longer needed.

“We laughed because she had the crib and the whole room for the doll for a baby girl,” Jonderko said. “And she had a baby boy, so she had to exchange everything, sell everything and buy new stuff.”

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This nursery used to belong to Lorcia, Magda’s reborn doll. Magda would later give birth to a baby boy.
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A new doll is packed and ready to be sent to a new owner. Each package comes with a birth certificate, and the box-opening ritual can be important for many doll owners, Jonderko said. Many women film the moment and share it.