Sophie the Giraffe turns 60: Behind the allure of the iconic squeaky toy

TORONTO -- She stands seven inches tall, has dark spots, rosy cheeks and you’d think she was lined with gold the way shoppers clamour for her.

Sophie the Giraffe turns 60: Behind the allure of the iconic squeaky toy
Sophie the Giraffe turns 60: Behind the allure of the iconic squeaky toy

TORONTO -- She stands seven inches tall, has dark spots, rosy cheeks and you’d think she was lined with gold the way shoppers clamour for her.

Sophie the Giraffe, a French baby teething toy that turns 60 in the spring, has been an unlikely staple in parenting and gift giving for decades. According to QHouseKids, its Canadian distributor, “well over a million” of the small giraffes have been sold across the country since it officially came to Canada in 2009, though the company won't disclose actual numbers. In France, more Sophies are sometimes sold in a year than babies are born.

“I don't know why but babies go nuts over a Sophie,” wrote one Amazon reviewer, who said she buys one for every baby shower she attends. “Always a hit. It's like a weird cult magic over babies.”

While some balk at the price tag -- $30 for a squeaky plaything the length of a dinner fork -- many believe the imported toy, typically used as a teether, is worth it. But even Sophie supporters express confusion as to why she seems so effective.

Toronto mother Paola Latour's daughter, who shares a name with the toy, hasn't used the giraffe in a decade, but Latour thinks her child's obsession had something to do with the natural rubber.

"It has a nice soothing smell," she told CTVNews.ca over the phone earlier this month from Bermuda. Plus, at the time, Latour was concerned about harmful chemicals that she feared were lurking in plastic toys. "I felt comfortable my child wasn’t sucking on Chinese plastic that has God-knows-what in it."

She's on to something, according to the Canadian distributor, who say that “to understand the lore behind Sophie,” just look to its simplicity, unique character design and the materials. “Mix in a little celebrity cachet and voila, a timeless classic,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca in the fall. The children of Hollywood elites from Sandra Bullock and Halle Berry to Nicole Ritchie and Hilary Duff have all been pictured with the giraffe.

SCIENCE OR PSEUDOSCIENCE?

According to French toy manufacturer Vulli, its toy is crafted to stimulate the senses with high-contrast spots and a squeaky function. But perhaps the raison d’etre of its popularity is that it’s made with 100 per cent natural rubber, derived from a milky latex extracted from Hevea trees in Malaysia, which the company says soothes sore gums.

But some experts believe the science behind Sophie is “really non-existent,” says Ontario pediatrician Dr. Rick MacDonald. While teething toys are meant to provide comfort to children whose teeth are coming in, there's little clinical evidence specific toys are effective in reducing discomfort.

“You can make any claim you want but there’s probably no scientific evidence whatsoever that that has any baring on easing teething pain, if you believe that the kids are in pain when they’re teething,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone earlier this month. “It’s like a lot of things with children. You think you’re doing the right thing, but you probably don’t need to.”

The toy’s so-called “magic” powers don’t work on every kid. Toronto pediatrician and founder of Kidcrew Dina Kulik has three Sophies in her home, but none of her four children took to the giraffe. In fact, Kulik thinks the toy “smells weird and tastes weird.” She wouldn’t recommend Sophie over any other teething toy.

“I don’t see any benefit of Sophie per se,” she said told CTVNews.ca earlier this month, adding that she thinks there’s a “placebo” affect at play with the toy’s popularity and use. Parents tend to blame everything including drooling, fussiness, rashes and diarrhea to teething, but there’s no scientific evidence to support that, she says.

“That isn’t to say that it isn’t teething,” Kulik added. “But there’s no way to prove or disprove that.”

CONTROVERSY AND CACHET

Though it’s still a well-known toy, MacDonald hasn’t seen it as much in his Oakville, Ont., offices as he used to. That could have something to do with some publicized scares involving choking and mould, he said. In 2014, a Vancouver mother recounted a disturbing incident in which her son nearly gnawed off a leg of the toy and almost choked on it. The toy had previously been pulled briefly from shelves after other choking scares, but was deemed safe by Health Canada. In 2017, an article in Good Housekeeping warned of black mould found inside a Sophie. The company responded saying that proper cleaning protocols must be followed since the toy is made of natural rubber and should not be submerged in water. 

Still, the toy is a top choice for moms and dads -- or at least gift-givers. Kathy Buckworth, a parenting author, didn’t have a Sophie for her own children, who are now adults, but her grandson has more than one. She doesn’t think the toy would be as popular were it not expensive. 

“There’s a certain cachet that comes from having a Sophie,” said Buckworth over the phone with CTVNews.ca in the fall. “And, in fact, having a couple of Sophies.”

Latour, who handed the toy down to her sister's children, buys Sophie for baby showers and other occasions now, knowing how well it worked for them and that it has a reputation among new parents of a particular income. 

"Every yuppie mommy has the Sophie giraffe," she told CTVNews.ca. "It is good value for money."


Sophie has offspring now, too, with a long line of products. She’s no longer just seven inches tall. There are Sophie pop-up books, plush toys, rattles, and velvet hand puppets. Pricey celebrity prestige and pseudoscience or not, the giraffe has garnered a relatively trusted status over her 60 years in production. Sometimes that’s all a parent needs to hear, said Buckworth.

“Parents are very worried about a first baby, what’s going to happen, what’s safe,” she said. “If they see that there’s a thousand of these types of strollers out there or 50 million Sophies sold, they get a pretty good feeling that this is a safe product.” 

Source: ctvnews.ca