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Data Driven Decision-making: Economist Emily Oster On Parenting Guide 'Cribsheet'

Emiy Oster is an economist and author of "Cribsheet." (Dana Smith)
Emiy Oster is an economist and author of "Cribsheet." (Dana Smith)

With host Meghna Chakrabarti

Economist and mother of two Emily Oster looks at the data behind all that parenting advice and finds some surprises. Her new book is aptly titled “Cribsheet.”


Emily Oster is an Economics professor at Brown University, and the author of her book “Cribsheet: A data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting from birth to pre-school.” (@ProfEmilyOster)

From The Reading

An excerpt from “Cribsheet: A data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting from birth to pre-school” by Emily Oster:

“As a parent, you want nothing more than to do the right thing for your children, to make the best choices for them. At the same time, it can be impossible to know what those best choices are. Things crop up that you never thought about—even with a second kid, probably even with a fifth kid. The world, and your child, surprises you all the time. It is hard not to second-guess yourself, even on the small things.

One of the great themes of your parenting life will be you have way less control than you think you do. You might ask why, if I know this to be true, have I written a guide to parenting in the early years? The answer is that you do have choices, even if not control, and these choices are important. The problem is that the atmosphere

around parenting rarely frames these choices in a way that gives parents autonomy.

We can do better, and data and economics, surprisingly, can help. My goal with this book 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.

I also hope Cribsheet will offer a basic, data-derived map of the big issues that come up in the first three years of being a parent. I found that hard to come by in my own experience.

Most of us are parenting later than our parents did; we’ve been functional adults a lot longer than any previous generation of new parents. That’s not just a neat demographic fact. It means we’re used to autonomy, and thanks to technology, we are used to having pretty much limitless information in our decision-making.

We’d like to approach parenting the same way, but the sheer number of decisions causes information overload. Especially early on, every day seems to have another challenge, and when you look for advice, everyone says something different. And, frankly, they all seem like experts relative to you. It’s daunting even before you factor in your depleted postpartum state and the tiny new resident of your home who won’t latch onto your breast, sleep, or stop screaming. Take a deep breath.

There are many big decisions: Should you breastfeed? Should you sleep train, and with what method? What about allergies? Some people say avoid peanuts, others say give them to your child as soon as possible—which is right? Should you vaccinate, and if so, when? And there are small ones: Is swaddling actually a good idea? Does your baby need a schedule right away?

These questions don’t die out as your child ages, either. Sleeping and eating just start to stabilize, and then you’ll get your first tantrum. What on earth do you do with that? Should you discipline your kid? How? Exorcism? Sometimes it seems like it. You may just need a break for a minute. Is it okay to let the kid watch TV? Maybe one time the internet told you watching TV will turn your child into a serial killer. It’s difficult to

remember the details—but maybe don’t risk it? But boy, a break would be nice.

And on top of these questions is the endless worrying, “Is my kid normal?” When your children are very little, “normal” is whether they are peeing enough, crying too much, gaining enough weight. Then it’s how much they sleep and how, whether they roll over, whether they smile. Then do they crawl, do they walk, when do they

run? And can they talk? Do they say enough different words? How can we get the answer to these questions? How do we know the “right” way to parent? Does such a

thing even exist? Your pediatrician will be helpful, but they tend to (correctly) focus on areas of actual medical concern. When my daughter showed no interest in walking at fifteen months, the doctor simply told me that if she didn’t walk by eighteen months, we would start screening for developmental delay. But whether your child

is so delayed that they need early intervention is different than whether they are simply a bit slower than the average. And it doesn’t tell you if late milestones have any consequences. At a more basic level, your doctor isn’t always around. It’s three a.m. and your three-week-old will only sleep while you’re right next to him. Is it okay to have him sleep in your bed? In this day and age, you’re most likely to turn to the internet. Bleary-eyed, holding the baby, your partner (what an asshole—this is all their fault anyway) snoring next to you, you look through websites, parenting advice, Facebook feeds. This can leave you worse off than you were before. There’s no lack of opinions on the internet, and many of them are from people you probably trust—your friends, mommy bloggers, people who claim to know the research. But they all say different things. Some of them tell you that, yes, having your baby sleep in your bed is

great. It’s the natural way to do it, and there’s no risk as long as you don’t smoke or drink. They make a case that the people who say it’s risky are just confused; they’re thinking about people who don’t do this the “right way.” But, on the other hand, the official recommendations say definitely not do this. Your child could die. There is no safe way to co-sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics tells you to put the baby in the bassinet next to your bed. He wakes up immediately. This is all made worse by the fact that these comments are (often) not delivered in a calm manner. I have

witnessed many an intense Facebook group discussion in which a decision about sleep deteriorates into, effectively, judgement about who is a good parent. You’ll have people telling you that choosing to co-sleep isn’t just a bad decision, it’s one that would be made by someone who doesn’t care about their baby at all. In the face of all this conflicting information, how can you decide what is right not just for the baby, not just for you, but for your family overall? This is the crucial question of parenting.

I’m an economist; a professor whose work focuses on health economics. In my day job I analyze data, try to tease causality out of the relationships I study. And then I try to use that data inside some economic framework—one that thinks carefully about costs and benefits—to think about decision-making. We know being a parent means getting a lot of advice, but this advice is almost never accompanied by an

explanation of why something is true or not, or to what degree we can even know it’s true. And by not explaining why, we remove people’s ability to think about these choices for themselves, with their own preferences playing a role. Parents are people, too, and they deserve better. The goal of this book is not to fight against any particular piece of advice, but against the idea of not explaining why. Armed with the evidence, and a way to think about decisions, you can make choices that are right for your family. If you’re happy with your choices, that’s the path to happier and more relaxed parenting. And, hopefully, to a bit more sleep.”

New York Times:The Data All Guilt-Ridden Parents Need

“In 1980, 8.6 percent of first birthswere to women over 30; by 2015 this was 31 percent.This is more than an interesting demographic fact. It means that many of us are having children much later than our parents did. By the time a baby arrives, many of us have been through school, spent time in the working world, developed friendships, hobbies. And through all of these activities, we have probably grown used to the idea that if we work harder — at our jobs, at school, at banking that personal record in the half marathon — we can achieve more.”

“Babies, however, often do not respond to a diligent work ethic. Take, as an example, crying.”

“When my daughter, Penelope, was an infant, she was typically inconsolable between 5 and 8 p.m. I’d walk her up and down the hall, sometimes just crying (me crying, that is — obviously she was crying). I once did this in a hotel — up and down, up and down, Penelope screaming at the top of her lungs. I hope no one else was staying there. I tried everything — bouncing her more, bouncing her less, bouncing with swinging, bouncing with nursing (difficult). Nothing worked; she would eventually just exhaust herself.”

“I wondered whether this was normal. I’m an economist, someone who works with data. I wrote a book on using data to make better choices during pregnancy; it was natural for me to turn to the data again once the baby arrived.”

New Yorker: Parenting by the Numbers

“Pregnancy! A time of wonder and anticipation. And paranoia. First comes the visit to your doctor, where you receive the (hopefully) happy news. Then comes the Talk, which goes something like: ‘Remember to take it easy for the next nine months. Pamper yourself. Get lots of sleep. And don’t eat any deli meats, or you could murder your baby.’”

“O.K., this might not be exactly what the doctor says, but it’s what many women hear. Daily life takes on a frightening new dimension. Is there toxoplasmosis on the cat’s butt? Is the hair salon full of poisonous fumes? Complicating things is the gap between the official recommendations and what people actually do. The handout says stick to “one small cup” of coffee and stay away from alcohol. But we all know that the coffee thing is B.S., and that it’s perfectly fine to have a glass of wine, because . . . they do it in France, right? What about that trending Times article, ‘Eating Nuts During Pregnancy Tied to Brain Benefits in Baby’? Or the fact that Kourtney Kardashian avoided microwaves after she had a baby?”

“Navigating this gantlet, when I was pregnant, I called a friend who had recently given birth. She cut me off, saying, “There’s a book you need to read.” The book was by Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who studies health care. In her day job, she pores over medical journals and government data sets for insights into how we treat diseases such as Huntington’s, diabetes, and H.I.V./aids. In 2010, Oster got pregnant. Confronted with the usual mixed messages—her doctor told her that a glass of wine was “probably O.K.”—she went home, logged in to PubMed, a database of medical literature, and downloaded every study on alcohol and caffeine going back to the nineteen-eighties. She then spent several days performing a personal meta-analysis: evaluating the merits of the studies, throwing out the weak ones, and making an assessment of the risks. (Her conclusion: a glass of wine a day in the second or third trimester wasn’t a problem, and she could keep drinking coffee guilt-free.)”

Grace Tatter produced this show for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.