Our work started just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2019, we had received NHS England funding, via a local Clinical Commissioning Group, to assess the usage of infant simulation dolls with expectant parents. However, our original research plans (like so many others across the country) needed to be re-thought. Therefore, our initial work focussed on undertaking a pre-pilot study (Whiting et al., 2021) so that we could gain personal experience of using the simulation dolls. This proved invaluable in terms of our learning and informing the direction of our future research; it also emphasised the need for researchers to fully understand the participant’s perspective – in particular, we identified that the technology associated with the infant simulation dolls can be challenging to set up and operationalise.
The next phase of our research (Whiting et al, 2023 – in press) focussed on the contribution of the dolls within an educational context, the aim being: To evaluate infant simulation dolls and their usage in terms of developing an empathetic insight into parenting for social work and children’s nursing students. The need for the development of empathetic approaches to be integrated into education programmes for health and social care students has been strongly advocated (Kerasidou et al. 2020; Moudatou et al., 2020; Yu et al., 2022). Between June 2021-June 2022, our first year BSc (hons) Nursing (Children’s) and MSc Social Work students were provided with an infant simulation doll and were then invited to participate in an individual semi-structured interview to enable them to share their thoughts and insights. The benefits of the dolls were very apparent with the students commenting extremely positively on their experience and the development of their empathy towards parents, with comments such as: “I’m really going to just put myself in their [parents] position”. [Children’s Nursing student 5]. This phase was further extended by offering the dolls to a second cohort of BSc Hons Nursing (Children’s) students who were then invited to complete an evaluative questionnaire. The data from 18 respondents concurred with the above findings.
The third phase of our work has focussed on the use of infant simulation dolls and the perceived enhancement of parenting ability of first-time expectant parents (mothers and fathers, aged 18 years or older). During the summer of 2023, six first time expectant parents (five identified as female and one as male), recruited through social media and our University communications system, were provided with an infant simulation doll for approximately one-week to help them prepare for forthcoming parenthood. Appropriate pre-education and training was offered in terms of the handling of the doll. Semi-structured interviews with the expectant parents revealed positive experiences and feelings that the doll had helped them and their partner to prepare for parenthood, for example:
“I thought it was really insightful and really good because obviously I’m having my first baby later on this year and I haven’t had much interaction with other babies, I’ve got a few friends who have got babies, so it was really good for me to actually experience something like it. I really enjoyed it. It was harder than what I thought.” [Parent 2]
In summary, the more traditional use of infant simulation dolls has not always resulted in positive outcomes, but our work has provided evidence that there is scope for a wider application, both within an educational as well as parental context. Resources can be limited so it is essential that we maximise those that we have in order that different groups can benefit and direct application to practice can be made.
The research team:
Dr. Lisa Whiting is an Associate Professor [Research] and Professional Lead, Children’s Nursing in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire. You can follow Lisa on X: @LisaWhi35145237
Dr Julia Petty is an Associate Professor [Learning & Teaching] and Senior Lecturer, Children’s Nursing in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire. You can follow Julia on X: @petty_julia
Sheila Roberts is a Senior Lecturer, Children’s Nursing in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire.
Professor Brian Littlechild is Professor of Social Work in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire.
Dr Karen Mills is Programme Tutor, Programme Lead, MSc Social Work/Step up to Social Work in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire.
Suzannah Goodchild is a parental Expert by Experience in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire.
Daniella Penny is a parental Expert by Experience in the School of Health & Social Work, University of Hertfordshire.
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Whiting, L. Petty, J., Littlechild, B. & Roberts, S. & Mills, K. [Accepted June 2023]. Gaining an empathetic insight into parenting: Evaluating infant simulation dolls for professional learning. Health and Social Work.
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