Instinctive Nurturing: Therapy Dolls & Dementia



Instinctive Nurturing by: Sue Paul, Licensed and Registered Occupational Therapist.

Sue writes a fabulous blog called The Dementia Queen full of tips on eldercare. 

The therapeutic use of baby dolls has become a popular approach for engaging people with dementia in a functional task.  The purpose is not to “play” with the doll as child would during role play, but to tap into a deeply rooted nurturing instinct that has its own set of motor skills hard wired in the brain.  It can be used as a therapeutic tool under a number of circumstances:

  1. Betty is difficult to engage.  She is unresponsive to most external stimuli and stares blankly into space.  But when Betty is seated in a rocking chair and a baby doll is handed to her, she holds the baby using the correct posture and begins to rock and sing.
  2. Elise paces constantly.  She is anxious and repeats the same phrase over and over again, or she rambles incoherently.  Elise wanders into other residents’ bedrooms and collects random items.  When Elise is led to the changing table and the baby doll is placed naked on the mat, she proceeds to reach for the diaper and the blanket.  She may not finish the task completely, but she will not walk away, governed by the instinct to not abandon the baby.
  3. Connie is also anxious and paces a lot.  In fact, she rarely sits down.  When Connie is given a baby doll weighted with 8 lbs, she carries the baby up and down the hall and gets a workout while she walks.  The weight tends to calm her and fatigue her to the point where she accepts rest in a rocking chair where she can still safely move in a rhythmic, comforting pace.
  4. Bill was labeled as “sexually inappropriate” to the female caregivers in his facility.  Bill was not so much sexually inappropriate as he was just longing for someone to touch.  Bill’s wife had died and his children were grown.  Bill enjoyed petting the visiting dog, but the dog never stayed long enough to keep Bill occupied.  When Bill was given a baby doll to hold and rock, he snuggled with it and told stories about his children and his grandchildren.  His adverse behavior toward the staff stopped once he had a different outlet for affection.
  5. Tony is combative during self care.  He resists the caregiver’s attempts to stand him up or change his clothes.  When the staff hand Tony a baby doll, he is temporarily stunned- long enough for the caregivers to complete the task.  He might not be keen on holding the baby doll, but he’s not likely to drop it or use it as a weapon.


The nurturing instinct is very strong in humans, as in most of the animal world.  Using baby dolls and pets can be a very simple way of moderating adverse behavior, mitigating the risk of falls, and engaging someone with dementia in a functional activity.



Published on April 14, 2013.