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Bringing Up Baby

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Theresa Brambila was driving in her Chula Vista, Calif., neighborhood when the tiny passenger strapped in her infant car seat started wailing uncontrollably. As the 17-year-old high school student scrambled to pull over, she recalls, "I had to try and hold her and feed her at the same time." It took a half-hour of comforting before the two of them could get back on the road.

Theresa's initiation into the rites of motherhood lasted only a few days. But that was enough to convince her that parenthood is not something to take on at a young age. The baby in her car was not a real infant but a lifelike doll that's been creating a stir in family-life and teenage-pregnancy-prevention programs across the country.

"Baby Think It Over" is the brainchild of Rick Jurmain, an aerospace engineer who was about to be laid off from General Dynamics in San Diego. He came up with the idea early last year while he and his wife, experienced parents themselves, were watching TV. The news show featured family-life classes that require students to tote around sacks of flour to learn what it's like to carry and care for an infant.

"My husband said the problem with a sack of flour is that it doesn't wake you up in the middle of the night," explains Mary Jurmain. "So I said, 'Why don't you invent something that does?'"

The result: an eight-pound vinyl bundle of joy programmed to cry every two to four hours. Its cry is the taped, plaintive howl of a real infant. And the only way to make the bawling baby stop is to hold it for up to 35 minutes while inserting a probe into its back to simulate feeding. The probe is attached to a band worn on the student's wrist.

The dolls come in different ethnic varieties. There are even plans in the works for a premature "crack baby" who shakes.

Yellow, red, and green alarms light up on the doll's back if the surrogate parent neglects or abuses the baby so teachers can size up what kind of mom or dad each student is cut out to be. Teachers can also tailor their take-home assignments by adjusting the "sleep" cycle for a normal, colicky, or "easy" baby.

Jaime Mercado, the principal of Palomar High School in Chula Vista, says Baby Think It Over "gets a little closer to reality" than devices used in the past, such as sacks of flour or eggs. "By itself it's not going to do anything," he warns, but when used as part of the school's family-life curriculum, the dolls do serve as realistic reminders of the responsibilities of parenthood.

Teachers at Palomar, an alternative high school, typically dole out the dolls on weekends. That strategy, Mercado notes, forces students to realize that "whatever activities they have planned have to revolve around the baby."

"Everywhere I went, it came with me," says 17-year-old Melissa Espinosa. "It makes you real tired. Whenever I had the chance, all I wanted to do was sleep."

For Jennifer Graf, who used the doll last year as a senior at Madison High School in Mesa City, Calif., "the hardest part was the middle of the night when you had to get up with it."

"I learned that it's not easy to be a single parent," she says. "It's something I would delay until I am financially stable and in a stable marriage, too."

Since putting Baby Think It Over on the market this past summer, the Jurmains have received more than 400 orders. Two small contractors help them outfit the educational dolls, which are made in Spain, with the necessary electronics and trimmings.

But so far, the entrepreneurial couple say, they haven't struck it rich--even though they just heard that Fortune magazine has chosen their doll as one of its products of the year.

"We're always about one month away from bankruptcy," admits Mary. "But we hope to be able to make a respectable living some time down the line." For more information about Baby Think It Over, call (800) 830-1416.

--Deborah L. Cohen

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