Before you go ahead and assume that dolls are a gendered toy, you might want to think again. In fact, placing ones in the hands of your toddler is not only incredibly important for imaginative play, it’s been proven to help foster social and emotional skills, according to a great deal of research including a recent study from Cardiff University. That said, how do you find the right one for your child—especially when there are so many options to choose from? We asked Madeleine Buckley, associate editor of The Toy Insider, for a little expert advice.
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Per Buckley, there are certain features you should keep in mind when browsing to find the right option for your kid.
1. Safety should always come first. The doll you choose should line up with your child’s age and development, but you also need to ask before buying: Does this doll come with small parts or accessories? Does it have a soft body and embroidered features, which are ideal for younger kids? Bottom line: Check the safety recommendation before you proceed.
2. Consider parent-friendly features. Some dolls are machine-washable, while others come with an auto on/off switch for dolls that talk. If you’d prefer a doll that doesn’t start babbling anytime you brush by, these factors matter.
3. Don’t discount diversity. Selecting a doll for your toddler that doesn’t look exactly like them is one of the best ways to normalize differences and encourage early conversations about race—something you should definitely keep in mind when you shop.
4. Think about your personal preferences. The range of doll options is vast. Do you want one that talks? One that goes to the potty? Or one that is simply cute and cuddly? Every doll encourages imaginative play—you just have to decide what you, and your toddler, want.
5. Don’t forget to check the anatomy. Yep, some dolls are anatomically correct while others are not. If this matters to you, be sure to read the fine print before you check out.
This doll sets the bar for imaginary play pretty high, says Buckley, given that she really does grow from newborn to big girl (a size increase of four inches over time). That’s not all: This toy utters more than 75 different phrases and sounds and has a few other surprises in store, like the fact that her hair grows, too, and that the first bottle reveals her eye color.
Buy It ($60)
Age: 18 months+
This soft-bodied doll is made to be hugged. With realistic details like sleep eyes that open and close, Babble Baby also plays realistic sounds (activated by a gentle push of the baby’s chest) that will inspire your toddler to engage in creative and nurturing play.
$55 on Amazon
Age: 18 months+
American Girl’s 15-inch tall Bitty Baby similarly features a cuddly, cloth body, but this doll comes with a personalized birth announcement and the option to select your sleeper of choice before you add to cart. That’s not all: There are six different baby types available, not to mention a full collection of outfits and accessories (think Bitty Baby goes to the beach…or to a tea party) for an additional cost.
Buy It ($60)
Parents rejoice: This doll is machine-washable, dryer-safe and completely plush, Buckley touts. Each doll also comes with a tiny friend for—you guessed it—playdates. Kids will love the built-in onesie, but also the option to dress and undress their doll.
Buy It ($25)
These new dolls from Lilly Tikes are specially designed for preschoolers. They encourage a message of friendship, come with accessories that are perfectly-sized for toddler hands and sing a version of “Ring Around the Rosie” when kids hold both of their hands, says Buckley.
$25 on Amazon
Looking for an entirely waterproof toy? Well, you won’t have to set a boundary if your toddler wants to carry this boy doll into the bath or pool. He also comes with 25 play accessories, so there’s no shortage of imaginary fun.
Buy It ($20)
This machine-washable, soft-bodied option is fully poseable with a head that pivots and legs and arms that position however your toddler chooses. Add shoes and they can even stand up on their own. Gender-neutral clothes—a onesie, diaper, socks and shoes—are also included.
Buy It ($69)
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