Emily Oster’s Cribsheet is all about data driven, informed choice parenting
Opinion

Emily Oster’s Cribsheet is all about data driven, informed choice parenting

Economics professor Emily Oster, also the author of bestseller on pregnancy Expecting
Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – and What you Really Need to
Know is ready with her next book on parenting and the millions of decisions it involves –
Cribsheet: A Data Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting from Birth to Preschool.
The book covers every important decision that a parent faces from breast milk vs. formula
debate to conflicting advice on co sleeping to language development. She evaluates data and
evidence on each decision to offer parents choice to make better decisions.

In her section on breastfeeding for instance she questions some of the purported benefits of
breast milk as she points out that, “A lot of the evidence is biased or problematic because, as
we said, the choice to breastfeed is not random.” She concludes that when you “look at those
pieces of evidence, what comes out is that there are some real benefits for the baby early on
— there may be some improvements in digestion, lower allergy risk, a reduction in ear
infections — and some long-term benefits to the mom in terms of breast cancer reduction. But
some of those claims about later health benefits for kids — like higher IQ, lower obesity, less
asthma — don’t seem to be borne out in the best data”. Oster writes that women who
breastfeed and do it longer, especially in developed countries, are richer and more educated
than mothers who do not and this makes it difficult to ascribe causality to the benefits of
breastfeeding. She cites a Scandinavian study where it was found that “children who nursed
longer had cognitive scores that were nearly 8 points higher on average. But their mothers
were also richer, had more education and had higher I.Q. scores. Once the authors adjusted
for even a few of these variables, the effects were much smaller.”

Similarly she says the evidence on sleep training or letting the child “cry it out” was mixed.
She says that “cry it out” method has been criticized for comparing the outcomes to outcomes
of children in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s. These children lived without human
contact for months and this is not comparable to sleep training methods. The latter does not
include physical and emotional abuse that occurred in these orphanages. She cites an
Australian study where the children who were sleep trained were found no different than
those who were not in terms of emotional stability and conduct behavior, stress, parent-child
closeness, conflict or parent-child attachment.

Oster does point out that while evidence might not be straightforward on some issues, there
are other areas that are more black and white. One instance of this is vaccinations – the
benefits of vaccines are indisputable. Other areas like stay at home vs working mother, she
points out that data is not very helpful at all and each family is different in many ways that
may determine outcomes.

Oster admits that she is not trying to advice parents but just helping them make better
decisions through better evidence at their disposal. Most of all she cautions against judgment
and tries to take pressure off parenting in modern times. She states, “Part of what makes early
parenting so difficult is every choice and decision seems like it is the choice that is going to
make or break your kid, including very tiny things. A lot of the message of this book is, there
aren’t really any decisions like that. There are many good choices. Hopefully it’ll take a little
pressure off of this experience which can be quite exhausting.” She argues that studies often
overlook parent’s main priorities and quantitative data collected by them seldom aligns with the expectations of parents that are more qualitative in nature – to raise well-rounded, healthy
and happy children.

Oster’s book is informative when parenting has become a serious of must dos. Where new
parents find themselves overwhelmed with plethora of information and face what they feel
are extremely important choices. The somewhat relaxed parenting of previous generation has
been replaced by myriad advice accompanied by serious consequences of each action. Thus
ultimately Oster encourages parents to stop second-guessing and stressing about every
scenario, “We can get caught up in every tiny decision and miss the enjoyment of parenting
and the part of this that’s supposed to be fun.”

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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