The Guilt-Free, Data-Driven Guide to Parenting
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On the night my husband and I finally began sleep-training our son, I texted two of my most trusted friends with kids. “Do we really need to do this?” I asked, knowing my heart would break listening to our 8-month-old howl. “It’s so hard,” replied one. “Just remember he’s OK.” The other recommended letting my husband take over while I drank wine and took a bath.
At that point, I hadn’t slept for more than three consecutive hours in months and was getting all my parenting advice from friends and family. Our pediatrician had suggested we read books to help prepare for sleep training. But there were too many, all offering slightly different methods. And most seemed off-puttingly dogmatic. According to one, avoiding sleep training makes for fussy, hyperactive brats who grow up to be fat children. (Yes, fat.) Meanwhile, I know plenty of great, healthy kids who thrived without crying it out.
So it was refreshing to read Emily Oster’s Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool. Oster has a doctorate from Harvard and teaches economics at Brown. The mother of two is the author of a previous book, Expecting Better, which got raves from everyone from the New York Times to Amy Schumer and took a similar, even-handed look into the scientific research around pregnancy. “This book will not tell you what decisions to make for your kids,” Oster writes in Cribsheet. “Instead, I’ll try to give you the necessary inputs and a bit of a decision framework. The data is the same for us all, but the decisions are yours alone.”
Smart, relatable, and funny, Oster makes good on that promise while drawing on her own experience for anecdotes. She tackles all the major issues, including circumcision, potty training, marital health with kids, and when to conceive your next child. Clearly defined chapters make it easy to pick up the book and cram about any issue.
Unlike many parenting gurus, Oster is careful not to be judgmental. For example, she details the small but devastating hazards of co-sleeping—namely accidental death (0.08 deaths per 1,000 babies for women who breastfeed, don’t smoke, and don’t drink—but an astounding 27.6 deaths per 1,000 babies for parents who bottle-feed, smoke, and drink). But she acknowledges that for some parents it’s the only option for getting a modicum of rest. On other topics, notably vaccination, she takes a clear stand: There is no link between vaccines and autism, according to data she cites, including one multiyear study in Denmark that tracked more than 530,000 children.
Some of Oster’s findings are surprising. Did you know that some totally normal babies don’t learn to sit on their own until they’re 9.2 months old? And 5 percent of babies learn to walk, but never crawl? Other information seems intuitive: Oster summarizes several studies showing that babies around the age of 1 don’t learn from watching educational videos. One tracked use of a Baby Einstein product, called Baby Wordsworth, over six weeks and found zero difference in vocabulary acquisition between those who did and didn’t watch the DVD. The single predictor of both how many words children spoke and how fast their vocabularies grew? Their parents reading them books.
At times I did wonder how up-to-date the science may be: When discussing the pros and cons of bathing a baby directly after birth, she doesn’t mention potential harm to the baby’s microbial balance. Nor does she mention a growing body of evidence for the microbial benefits of both breastfeeding and breast milk. But she does give comfort to sheepish formula-using parents, concluding that even though breastfeeding does have some benefits for infants early on (for example, only 9 percent had diarrhea, compared with 13 percent of bottle-fed babies), there’s no convincing evidence for rumored effects such as increased risk of childhood cancer or obesity. Articles summarizing research that claims your child is more likely to drop out of high school if he’s formula-fed are mostly clickbait based on bad science, she says.
I’ll probably continue to get most of my advice from friends, but I’ll definitely turn to Oster for her data and smart analysis. She comes across as a good mom and down-to-earth—which makes her takes appealing. In one early chapter covering postpartum mental and physical health, she remembers attending a friend’s brunch not long after giving birth and spending the entire time crying uncontrollably for no discernible reason, or maybe because a hat she knitted for her baby was too big. It’s a moment I can definitely relate to. Although Oster consistently urges the reader to ignore anecdotes in favor of data, her own make that message more palatable.
But back to sleep training. There’s no evidence that the practice is damaging for a child. Studies find that the cry-it-out method works and that babies who begin sleeping in their own room from 4 to 9 months get better rest and snooze an average of 45 minutes longer each night as toddlers. Oster writes: “The data, as imperfect as it is, is on your side.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Justin Ocean at firstname.lastname@example.org, Chris Rovzar
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