LIKE every proud mum, Christina Cotgrove loves nothing more than spoiling her babies.
She has spent £45,000 on her little ones in five years, decking them out in designer shoes and snazzy outfits that cost £100 each — even though the brood are all dolls.
Christina, 68, has 22 of the spookily realistic toys known as “reborns”, which cost from £300 to £3,000 each.
They sit in pride of place in their very own nursery, where the mum of seven real-life children spends hours with them.
She says: “Every so often I’ll give them a bath, then powder them and dress them back up before bottle-feeding them and giving them dummies.
“It’s comforting to be able to take care of babies again and I don’t have to deal with the messy parts. I can’t describe the excitement I feel when I open a box to find a sweet little face staring up at me.”
But not everybody has the same reaction to the dolls, which have a cult following among devotees.
She recalls: “I remember one outing to Chessington World of Adventures. It was just me, my husband, my two youngest children and one of my dolls.
“A stranger came over to admire the doll but when I told her it wasn’t a real baby she ran away screaming.
“People always get fooled and think that they’re real babies. It just shows how well made and realistic my dolls are.
“But reactions like that definitely won’t stop me taking them out. I’m hoping to meet up with some friends in the reborn community for a visit to the beach soon.”
Luckily for Christina, her husband David, also 68, is tolerant.
She explains: “David doesn’t understand why I love the dolls so much but he puts up with it.”
Christina fell in love with the dolls in December 2010, after the death of her mum Katerina aged 86.
She recalls: “My mum used to bring home a new doll for me whenever she went away and I’d spend hours playing with them.
“After she passed away, I was left some money and I couldn’t think of a better way to remember her than with a doll.”
Christina ordered her first reborn doll, Chrissy, from eBay for £300.
She says: “As soon as I opened the box, I was in love. Everything from her lovely dark hair to her tiny little toes looked so lifelike. I knew I had to have another.
“Within months I’d bought a little brother for Chrissy and after that I was hooked.”
Christina has five biological children aged 34 to 48, and two adopted children, both 18, plus 19 grandchildren and six great-grandkids.
Most are not fans of the reborns.
Christina, who also fostered children for decades, admits: “My older children find the babies very creepy. Some of my grandchildren enjoy playing with them when they visit, but others aren’t very keen.
“I always make sure to spend as much time with my grandchildren as I do with my reborns, so no one feels left out.
“Though I probably do spend more money on my reborns, I make sure to always treat my grandchildren too.
“When I was a young mum, I didn’t have the money to splash out on new outfits and toys for my kids. Now I can — it’s a treat for me as well as the dolls.
“I would spend my wages on the dolls before I retired and people know they’re all I want for Christmas and birthdays.
“My husband and I don’t go on holiday, and I don’t go out too often, so I can afford to treat my dolls to a cute onesie or a new pair of shoes.”
Christina’s collection really took off in September 2011, when she fell ill with heart and kidney problems and had to retire from fostering children after more than 20 years.
She says: “I’ve always been very maternal, so I was heartbroken when I had to give up foster caring. Having my reborns was a massive comfort to me.”
And Christina has to admit to having certain favourites, including one newborn with his face painted with tiger stripes.
These novelty reborns have a cult following of their own, and specialty makers make everything from alien babies to newborn dragons.
She says of her “tiger baby”: “He was made by Zita, an amazing reborn artist from America.
“His name is Regi-T — I watched him being made through YouTube videos and couldn’t stop looking at his gorgeous eyes.
“My most expensive doll was Zoe and she cost me £3,000 in May 2014.
“She’s made completely of silicone, with gorgeous brown locks.”
“There’s also Giesela, who’s my oldest doll.
“She’s not actually a reborn doll — I bought her for £300 in 2000 and she was about 3ft tall. I didn’t realise how big she was going to be.
“My husband was a bit surprised when she appeared in our bedroom, that’s for sure.”
On top of the dolls themselves, there is of course all their kit.
She explains: “My reborns have about 50 outfits and 60 pairs of shoes, which I store along with their nappies and bottles. Christina even has a pram for the dolls, which she uses to take them for walks.
And although her hobby is not to everyone’s taste, Christina has brought a few people around to her way of thinking.
She says: “I have managed to change peoples’ minds about the babies.
“My sister Patricia, who is 61, has never liked dolls but when she came to visit from Queensland she fell in love with one of my reborns.
“I ended up giving her the doll to take home with her. Then, not long after, I received a package from Patricia.
“Without telling me, she went back to Australia and started learning how to make reborn dolls. To replace the one I gave her, she had made me a new baby.”
Though her house is fit to burst, Christina says she has no plans to stop collecting reborns.
She adds: “I know people think it’s a bit weird, but I just laugh them off.
“Collecting the babies makes me happy and I’m not hurting anyone. I don’t see why people have problems with them.”