The "Cribsheet" author takes on some of the worst lies in the mommy wars, from "breast is best" to "sleep training is evil," and more.
Ah, parenting advice — the gift new mothers never register for and yet somehow always arrives in the milk-stained, sleep-deprived haze of the fourth trimester. It can come in the form of an offhand comment from your mother-in-law about how much milk you’re producing, the well-meaning furrow in a coworker’s brow as you say no, your baby doesn’t watch DVDs that teach them to read at 9 months, or the frantic, middle-of-the-night search through the mommy Facebook group to see if letting your newborn cry it out to sleep will turn him into Ted Bundy.
Millennials are waiting longer than ever to have kids, and are no strangers to a data-driven approach to decision-making. But while there’s no dearth of parenting advice out there, surprisingly little of it is based on the sort of information we have come to rely on to make most of our other big life choices, like peer-reviewed studies with objective truths at the end. It’s a reality economist Emily Oster saw firsthand when she got pregnant with her first child, and her quest for evidence-based pregnancy recommendations led her to write a book full of them.
Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong and What You Really Need To Know earned her a coveted place on many a woman’s bookshelf and a big shout-out from Amy Schumer, but Oster soon found that an informed pregnancy was only the first hurdle to clear. (Expecting Better ends in Oster’s delivery room with her newborn daughter and her laptop.) Thrust into caring for the tiny human she had brought home with her, the Brown University economics professor was again faced with myriad choices, a lot of misinformation, and suddenly very little sleep.
“It feels like you’re tired and everybody is yelling at you,” Oster tells InStyle of the early days of motherhood. “It was so overwhelming. I felt like with every decision, we had to make it right away, we didn't know we were going to have to make it, and it was a total surprise. It was like a fire hose, and I didn't really have time to do an analysis of the choices that I would have wanted to.”
After giving birth to her second child, she was determined to drill down into the data to help other parents with those very choices. The result is Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, published this spring, which aims to give new parents “confidence in choices,” she says, and tackles everything from breastfeeding and sleep training to returning to work and picking a preschool. Ahead, we asked Oster to break down some of the biggest myths she uncovered and why we all should stop worrying about them.
Breastfeeding is definitely a beautiful way to bond with and feed your baby. It’s also freaking hard sometimes, and moms who can’t do it successfully often feel inadequate or shamed for using formula, and “the experience can be very, very stressful,” Oster says.
While breastfeeding is sometimes touted as a panacea for all sorts of things (higher IQ; lower risk of childhood cancer, diabetes and obesity for babies; a natural form of birth control and postpartum weight loss for mom), Oster found that only some of those benefits are supported by solid data, and they mostly center around the first few months of life.
Breast-fed babies do experience fewer allergic reactions, fewer gastrointestinal disorders and fewer ear infections in the early days. There are also benefits for moms in terms of a lower risk for breast cancer. But Oster found no good data to support claims that breastfeeding will make your baby (or you) smarter, thinner or taller.
The bottom line? “This general pitch that breastfeeding has benefits is right. But some of the more aggressive claims about long-term impacts don't seem to hold up in the best data. We see those things — IQ, obesity — they’re correlated with breastfeeding, but it seems like those links are driven by differences across moms who breastfeed and not by the breastfeeding itself,” Oster says. “It’s important for people to know, not because it says we shouldn’t breastfeed, or we shouldn’t support women who are doing it, but it kind of takes away, hopefully, some of the shame many women seem to feel if they’re not successful or if it doesn’t work for them. That shame is not really effective, and it’s not helping anybody.”
Oster found what most new moms already know from their group texts and Facebook groups: pumping breast milk sucks. While some states require employers to have a space for working new moms to pump, others don’t, and nothing says those legally mandated spaces have to be nice. Many a working mom has had to disappear into a conference room with paper taped over the windows or a dimly-lit supply cupboard to turn on a noisy, uncomfortable pump and then spend extra time washing and sterilizing its parts. “I often hear from women who say ‘My baby is 11 months old and I’m still pumping five times a day at work and I hate it and it’s getting in the way of my job, but I know I have to get to a year because that’s what people say my kid needs to be successful,” Oster says. “There’s really no evidence in that direction.”
Because most of the benefits of breastfeeding apply to babies in the first few months of life, a mom returning to work shouldn’t feel like a slave to her Spectra. “Given how unpleasant many people find pumping, it’s too bad we generate a situation where people feel like they can't give themselves a break,” she says. Oster also found that the data doesn’t support fears about “nipple confusion,” so moms who want to breastfeed and bottle feed or use pacifiers should do feel free to do so.
Are they sleeping through the night yet? Asking this of a new parent is practically an act of violence and yet we all hear it, all of the time. Entire sections of bookstores are dedicated to getting babies to sleep, and many of those sleep-training methods involve some form of letting your baby cry so they can learn to self-soothe. It’s a process that is gut-wrenching enough for parents without the added myth that “my kids are gonna hate me [for abandoning them],” Oster says. But the data just doesn’t back those fears up. Oster found sleep-training leads to better sleep for kids and adults. “In the short-term, if anything, people tend to say that their kids look happier and better-rested in the wake of sleep training than before, and we also see a big effect in a positive direction on maternal depression and on marital satisfaction,” Oster says.
There is also no evidence to suggest that sleep-trained kids are less attached to their parents. But people who don’t want to sleep-train their kids shouldn’t feel pressured to, either. “If it isn't for you, it's not for you, and that's totally reasonable. If it is something that you want to do, you should feel comfortable knowing that it's not going to lead to your child being a serial killer,” she jokes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first six months to a year, and plenty of new parents know what it's like to tiptoe around a snuffling baby who went to bed at 6:30 p.m. dominating the whole bedroom (particularly for apartment dwellers, this can mean some long nights on the couch).
The sleeping-in-the-same-room recommendation stems from research about lowering the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is important. But, Oster found, “after three or four months, the risk of SIDS is extremely low,” and research shows that babies who learn to sleep in a room “on their own at 4 months sleep better at 4 months, 9 months and at 2 and a half.”
When it comes to co-sleeping in the same bed, Oster found, there is moderate evidence that bed sharing is risky, and much more so if you or your partner smoke or drink alcohol. Co-sleeping is also not recommended for premature or low birthweight babies, Oster found. And there is one across-the-board no-no: death rates are 20 to 60 times higher than the baseline risk when babies sleep on a sofa with an adult, so stay off the couch, or put down the baby if you can't keep your eyes open.
Despite their big claims — and popularity as a baby shower gift — randomized studies show no impact of these methods on 9- to 18-month-old babies’ cognitive abilities. “We don’t have good evidence suggesting it works,” Oster says. “Basically, your kid can’t learn words from a DVD, they can learn words from you, and I think the biggest message is that those things are really a gimmick.” Reading to your kids, on the other hand, is backed up by the data as being super important. Snuggle in for some story time if you want to plant the seeds of phonics.
Entire so-called “mommy wars” have been fought over whether it’s better to work or stay home, but if you want to make that choice, do it based on your own preference and your family’s budget, not on your kids, Oster says. Studies do show that there are benefits to moms and dads taking parental leave to bond with a new baby in the first six months of life, but kids of stay-at-home moms and working moms look the same as they get older. Kids in daycare aren’t less attached to their parents, studies show.
“There just isn't any evidence that would suggest that outcomes are different for kids who have two working parents versus one,” Oster says. “When parents are making decisions about whether somebody should stay home or not, so much of that discussion tends to focus on what is best for the kids, and how to optimize things for my kids’ outcome, and so on. But in fact, a lot of that discussion should focus on what the parents want, how is that going to work for the family budget, and what people really want to do.” When it comes to picking a daycare, focus on the quality of the interactions between the kids and caregivers, not on gimmicky extras, Oster advises. And in general, more time spent in daycare centers seems to be associated with slightly better cognitive outcomes and slightly worse behavioral outcomes for kids, as well as more colds but also more immunity. The positive effects of daycare also present more for older children, Oster found.
Ultimately, Oster hopes the book will help new parents let go of some of the stress, guilt and doubt that comes with parenting. And a healthy dose of cutting yourself a break is crucial, too. “You're making these decisions about something you've never thought about before, and they all feel incredibly important,” Oster says. Ditto on tuning out the noise from (mostly well-meaning) advice-givers. “As as a parent, people are constantly being like, ‘Well, why did you do it like this? Why did you do it like that? I would never do that,’” Oster says. “I think that having some evidence and a way to kind of think through decisions and a way to come to decisions that are right for you will hopefully give people more confidence in those interactions.” And just maybe, if all goes to plan, a little more sleep.