Closeup portrait of a baby. (iStock)

Couples who otherwise see eye-to-eye can find themselves at odds over how to raise a child. What if those conflicts could be identified before the child is ever born?

New research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Family Psychology suggests maybe they can, if they can bring themselves to do something that sounds sort of silly.

Researchers from Ohio State University, led by Lauren E. Altenburger and Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, found that the way couples interact when they play with a baby doll offers clues to co-parenting conflicts that might arise with a real baby.

Co-parenting refers to how parents work together to raise a child. “Co-parenting has consistently been linked to child outcomes. When parents fight and undermine each other’s parenting, the child suffers,” said lead researcher, Lauren Altenburger. “If we can identify couples who may have problems with their co-parenting before their baby is even born, we may be able to intervene.”

The researchers videotaped 182 couples in the third trimester of pregnancy while they played with a doll made from footed pajamas stuffed with 7-8 pounds of rice — roughly the weight of a newborn baby. It had a head made of green fabric.

Each parent played with the doll alone and then they played with it together. Then they talked about the experience.

The doll couples played during a study by Ohio State University which offers clues to co-parenting conflicts that might arise with a real baby. (Courtesy of Ohio State University) The doll couples played during a study by Ohio State University that offers clues to co-parenting conflicts that might arise with a real baby. (Ohio State University)

Researchers watched the tape and rated the couple on how cooperative they were with one another, how playful each was with the doll, their levels of warmth, whether one criticized the other and their intuitive parenting behavior.

Playing with dolls can seem silly at first. “When people first hear about it, many think it is strange,” Schoppe-Sullivan said in a press release issued by Ohio State. “But couples in our study responded positively to the activity. They were able to take it seriously.

Nine months later, the researchers videotaped and rated the parents again, this time with their real baby.

The way the couples acted with the real baby was much like how they acted with the doll. “Some of the couples were very positive, saying nice things to each other about their parenting,” Schoppe-Sullivan said. “With the doll they might say ‘You’re going to be such a great dad.’ After the birth of the baby, their talk would be very similar: ‘You’re such a natural.'”

Other couples were more critical of each other, saying things like “You’re not going to hold the real baby like that, are you?”

“The extent to which couples support or undermine each other’s interactions with the doll predicts their co-parenting behavior a year later,” Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said in a news release.

The couples in the study were all participants in Ohio State’s New Parents Project, a long-term study of couples where both partners work and plan to continue working after their baby is born.

In addition to looking at how the couple interacted as parents, the researchers rated how they acted with each other without the doll and surveyed them about how happy they were in the relationship. They found that a couple’s relationship as parents is distinct from their romantic relationship.

“Even before the child’s birth, expectant parents already demonstrated particular interaction patterns in their roles as parents, and these behaviors were associated with but distinct from the ways they operated within their couple relationship,” the researchers wrote. “Yet, both the ‘couple’ and emerging ‘coparenting couple’ contributed to the development of coparenting behavior.”

Previous research has shown that a difficult child can put stress on the co-parenting relationship even when the romantic relationship is strong.

This study shows that interventions focusing on establishing positive co-parenting before a child is even born could be helpful, the researchers said. “Interventions targeted specifically at the prenatal period may help establish more cooperative and supportive coparenting interactions before the infant joins the union,” they wrote.

One limitation of the study the researchers said, is that factors that influence how parents act with the real baby, such as the child crying, weren’t present with the doll. That could have colored the results. Future research is needed to determine how child characteristics affect continuity between prenatal and postnatal coparenting behavior.