Parenting with data

Emily Oster explores new ways to think about the dilemmas of child-rearing

‘A HAPPY baby requires a happy mother.’  (photo credit: PEXELS)
‘A HAPPY baby requires a happy mother.’
(photo credit: PEXELS)
Like all new moms, Emily Oster wanted to give her newborn daughter the best possible start in life, but it didn’t take long before her baby’s incessant cries nearly defeated her.
“I tried everything. Bouncing her more, bouncing her less, bouncing with swinging, bouncing with nursing. Nothing worked. I wondered if this was normal,” she recalls.
In this situation, many of us would have turned to parenting websites, or pediatricians, or family.
Oster did something else – she turned to hard data, scientific studies, and she applied the analytical tools she’d mastered in her career as an academic economist. Oster is an economics professor at Brown University, and her husband is an economist, and both of her parents teach economics at Yale.
From the research, she discovered that nonstop crying during the early evening was perfectly normal. Not only that, but Oster discovered that a baby could be soothed with a different brand of formula, probiotics or both.
Oster continued her foray into hard science, turning her into a calmer, more confident mother.
Eventually, Oster decided to share her newfound knowledge in Cribsheet – A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool.
Data-driven is an understatement. Cribsheet contains a full chapter of annotated footnotes, 291 of them in all, citing The New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, American Journal of Perinatology and more.
For Oster, that meant some hefty reading, including a whopping 900-page study published by the Institute of Medicine titled “Adverse Effects of Vaccines; Evidence and Causality.”
“Not beach reading,” Oster jokes. And the conclusion? Unequivocally to vaccinate.
Of course, not all studies are created equal. “How do you identify a good study?” she writes. “This is a hard question. Randomized trials, larger studies, more studies confirming the same thing tend to increase confidence.” And yet, at the end of the day, Oster must turn to her intuition.
“Sometimes you poke into a study and it doesn’t smell quite right.” Her goal is to look at relationships between disparate claims, to see when they are true and when they are not.
One example of a common parenting canard that the research didn’t support is the myth of nursing. Modern mothers are fed on the idea that nursing is the sine qua none of parenting, and that without it their babies are doomed. But a closer look at the data reveals that this is simply not true.
The reason that nursed babies do better is because their mothers are wealthier and better educated than bottle-feeding mothers. If those same mothers would bottle-feed, their babies would do just as well, says Oster. That’s certainly a great load off of the consciences of the many guilt-ridden mothers who either can’t or don’t want to nurse. Another surprise relates to allergens.
“PEOPLE IN the US have been told for many years to avoid exposing kids to allergens [peanuts for example] until they are older. It turns out that this advice is wrong,” she says. Interestingly, the research leading to this conclusion was done in Israel, where toddlers routinely snack on a peanut-based food called Bomba, and peanut allergies are rare.
Findings like that are part of the reason why Cribsheet is such a helpful book.
“My goal is to take some of the stress out of the early years by arming you with good information and a method for making the best decisions for your family,” says Oster.
And parents seem to be buying it. Released in April, Cribsheet is climbing its way up the bestseller lists, embraced by a generation of older and better-educated parents.
Academic papers are hardly scintillating reading, but Oster’s writing style is breezy and fun. She writes clearly and accessibly, sharing both her humor and frustration. The book is filled with anecdotes from her own life as a mother, including the day she brought her newborn daughter home, asleep in her car seat, without a clue as to what she’d do once the baby woke up.
For parents too bleary-eyed to plow through Cribsheet’s 348 pages, Oster offers handy end-of-chapter summaries she calls “the bottom line,” bullet-pointed lists summarizing her conclusions.
Because a happy baby requires a happy mother, the book gives considerable attention to mom’s healthy recovery, both physically and emotionally. Oster also offers advice for keeping the marriage strong after the baby arrives.
As a working mother, Oster is deeply concerned with the “work-life balance.” Rather than answers, she offers a method for making decisions. When Oster analyzes data, she asks three questions: What is best for the child? What do the parents want? And what do those choices imply for the family?
Oster urges parents to be true to themselves.
Like anyone who has written a popular book, Oster is not without her detractors. She has been accused of cherry-picking her studies.
“You cannot explain every study that exists. That would be a literature review and it would be boring, “she says. “On the other hand, I think it’s valuable to explain some studies in detail, since they help illustrate general points.”
She admits that data won’t solve every issue. “There isn’t good research about everything. What I will certainly say is that there are ways in which the literature on this is frustrating, and there are some very important questions about which we don’t seem to know as much as I would hope,” she says.
Interestingly, Oster’s most cherished piece of parenting wisdom isn’t data-based at all. She learned her greatest lesson as an anxious new mother while planning to take her baby daughter to France for vacation. Despite her scientific bent, Oster found herself frantic as she imagined everything that could go wrong. One scenario involved her baby daughter being stung by a bee and having an allergic reaction far away from a doctor or hospital.
 When she asked her pediatrician what to do, the doctor’s response stunned her.
“I’d probably just try not to think about that.”
 “I liked that a lot,” said Oster. “Sometimes you just have to accept that you cannot control everything. That’s hard, but it’s part of the fun.”
Just for the record, Oster’s baby, Penelope, was eventually stung by a bee and was totally fine.