The 10-pound rubber and plastic dolls make crying, cooing and burping noises in Crystal Freeman’s eighth-grade Child Development class at Forest Park Middle School. Each of 11 students in Freeman’s class – two boys and three girls -get to take home a doll, called a “Ready-or-Not-Tot,” overnight. The idea is to learn about the needs and habits of real babies and get a first-hand view of parenting.

“Being a parent is forever,” said Freeman to her students. “It doesn’t end at 18.” Freeman is the mother of a middle-schooler herself.

The class is part of the Family and Consumer Science Department, but Freeman says the experience also brings home to students how tough teenage parenthood can be. “[Students] tell me, ‘I don’t want to be a parent right away. I’ll wait a long time before I have kids.’ I get a lot of that.”

Earlier in the year, students practiced with an “egg baby.” They carried a hollowed egg shell with them everywhere for seven days. Most were crushed in tween backpacks or accidentally dropped, Freeman said. Only three of the 11 eggs survived the week.

The middle school owns two $305 Ready-or-Not-Tots, one white and one African American. The dolls run a random program of baby reaction sounds. Students respond by inserting four plastic keys, representing burping, feeding, attention or diapering into a slot on the manikin’s back. The dolls have a sensor on the back that shows if they have been neglected or shaken/abused during their custody with the students.

“For extra credit they can take care of a ‘drug-affected’ baby, who is more fussy and cries longer,” she said.

Jummy Aderele, 13, took the doll home last week, much to the chagrin of her mother. “She didn’t want me to take it because we all need our sleep for school,” she said. Her younger sister sat with the doll during Aderele’s volleyball tryouts. “Whenever it cried I had to get out of the serving rotation,” she said. But the hardest part was the doll’s wakefulness at night. According to the log records, Aderele’s doll woke up a 12:48 a.m. 1:20 a.m., 4 a.m. 5 a.m. 5:17 a.m. and 6 a.m. “I was surprised how hard it was,” she said. She sometimes babysits for a two-year-old cousin, but doesn’t have to watch her overnight, she said.

Brandon Bennet, 13, was next in line to take the doll. He said he had a two-year-old sister, so he was accustomed to sleep-deprivation. “She’s sleeping better now,” he said. He even changes diapers at home – sometimes. But there was one part of his sister’s babyhood a rubber doll could never reproduce: “The most fun I have with her is pushing her up in the air until she laughs,” he said.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...