Wake-Up Call

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

RICHARD JURMAIN IS SITTING cross-legged on the floor in his living room in suburban San Diego surrounded by a dozen squawling babies. Male and female, Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic and Asian, the infants are raising a ruckus that would panic most parents. But Jurmain is ecstatic. "These guys have become part of the family," Jurmain shouts above the din. "My kids really love them. We've begun to treat them like they're real."

They do come close. Eerily lifelike, the babies are plastic dolls created by Jurmain, 40, an out-of-work aerospace engineer. His purpose: to provide adolescents an up-in-the-middle-of-the-night reality check on what parenting is all about—and to discourage them from rushing into it. The Baby Think It Over doll—20 inches long, weighing 7 to 10 lbs. and anatomically correct—contains a computer chip that produces the piercing cry of an infant every two to four hours, 24 hours a day. To stop the wailing, the teen turns the doll on its back, inserts a key and holds it there for 10 to 35 minutes—the amount of time it takes to feed a baby. The computer can be adjusted to simulate a happy or cranky infant.

The dolls, which Jurmain sells for $200 each, have been used to dramatic effect in six San Diego area high schools since last November. Students who hope to dodge Baby's lesson by, say, stuffing the doll in a linen closet will get failing grades. A microprocessor inside the doll records how long it has been crying before it is picked up. The chip also registers how roughly the baby has been handled.

Noting that the approximately 500,000 babies born each year to teenagers cost millions in public support, Jurmain says, "I wanted to give teens a hands-on dose of near-reality. I let them draw their own conclusions."

That they are doing. Kendra Lemkey, 17, who graduated this year from San Dieguito High School, took Baby Think It Over home for a weekend—three days and two nights—as an assignment for her child-development class. She says the experience left her "tired—and convinced I don't want to have kids for a while. It woke me up three times in the middle of the night. I had to take it everywhere, even to the coffee shop. It was embarrassing and really put a damper on my social life."

Nothing in Jurmain's background indicated a future in the doll business. The son of Jack Jurmain, a rocket test director, and his wife, Cecile, a math and physics teacher, he grew up in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and planned to follow in his father's footsteps. After studying math and physics at Middle-bury College, he got his MBA from Duke, then went to work in the aerospace industry, first for McDonnell Douglas in Texas, then for General Dynamics Space Systems in San Diego.

Baby Think It Over might still be a gleam in its inventor's eye had the aerospace industry not been painfully downsized by defense cutbacks. In September 1993, Jurmain was let go—just six months before his wife, Mary, 40, was laid off from her job as a technical librarian at San Diego Gas and Electric. One night the couple were watching a PBS television special on sex education for teenagers. "On the program, the kids were carrying around sacks of flour which were supposed to be simulation babies," says Jurmain. "But they don't wake you up at night. Mary looked at me and said, 'Richard, why don't you come up with something that cries?' "

The next day, Jurmain set about synthesizing the heart-wrenching wail of an aggrieved infant. His own children, Jake, 7, and Ariel, 3, had tutored him well in the sound. "Jake had colic as a baby and screamed for seven straight months," he says. "Ariel had a high-pitched cry that would peel paint off the wall." Jurmain went to a local hospital and recorded wailing newborns testing their lungs. He transferred the sounds to a computer chip and implanted the chip into a doll.

Two months later, Jurmain was able to test-market a prototype at nearby Madison High. There, Barbara Hillman, a child-development expert who had used plants, sacks of flour and raw eggs as baby surrogates in her child-development/parenting class, pronounced the dolls a screaming success. "Students in high schools are developmentally in a very selfish time," she says. "Teens really don't understand how much responsibility goes into having a baby. It's a 24-hour-a-day job."

The effectiveness of Baby Think It Over has prompted demand for dolls that are even more distressed. Last month a San Diego drug counselor approached Jurmain about creating a crack baby—one that is smaller, cries longer and shakes violently—to shock young substance abusers into a realization of the effects of drugs on infants.

Meanwhile, Jurmain isn't abandoning his standard-issue screamer. "The real heroes are the teachers, counselors and doctors who fight teen pregnancy day in and day out," he says. "These dolls are only weapons in the fight. But as weapons," he notes happily, "they're tactical nukes."

SUSAN REED
JAMIE RENO in San Diego

From Our Partners