In a world full of well-meaning but paternalistic people and governments telling you they know what’s best for you, Emily Oster’s delightful second book “Cribsheet” tries not to steer parents toward a particular conclusion as to what’s best for their kids. Without a sense of every parent’s values, priorities, and risk tolerance, it would be a fool’s errand to try to dictate how someone chooses to parent.
Like her first book, the pregnancy-focused not-so-cult-classic “Expecting Better,” this one dismantles myths and pokes holes in junk science, centered on parenting for babies and toddlers ages 0 to 3. Oster creates a rare breed of books: parenting books that tackle most major, contentious topics, providing actionable help, but also teach the reader how to better interpret data on her own, without taking too much time from busy new parents or parents-to-be. The economist and mother of two might not have set out to create an army of data-savvy minions, but that might be a pleasant side effect of reading her books.
The core message is simple: much childrearing-related hysteria is not founded in fact, and too many relatively innocuous parenting decisions are made to seem cataclysmic, like if you mess them up, your child will be destined for unimaginable failure. Data-informed decision making that takes individual and family preferences into account restores autonomy to parents. The vast majority of parenting decisions, within reason, have minor pros and cons, but rarely sentence children to death or failure.
The book picks up right where the last left off, at labor and delivery. “Cribsheet” talks candidly about what to expect in the days and weeks after giving birth; what’s normal versus what should set off red flags. It gets into the bloody details that are so often skimmed over by much of our culture, which helps expectant mothers align their expectations with reality—mesh underwear is discussed (but not the sexy kind), as is passing blood clots.
Oster talks about some of the fright new parents feel when confronted with post-birth infant weight loss, as well as jaundice. She also goes into the pros and cons of circumcision and delayed cord clamping, which can be useful for staving off anemia.
The book then goes into decent depth about some of the big early parenting controversies sure to draw heated debate: breastfeeding vs. formula feeding, crib vs. co-sleeping, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate (as well as the merits, or lack thereof, for delayed schedules), and the “cry it out” method vs. different ways of sleep training (or the choice to not sleep train at all).
The breastfeeding chapter is especially interesting, as Oster spends plenty of time reminding the reader that mothers should do what is best for them; what works with their schedule, child, and budget. Oster talks about some of the absurd science that’s peddled—“one woman told me her doctor had told her that by quitting breastfeeding, she was costing her child three IQ points”—and, through a careful exploration of the relevant data, finds that the benefits of breastfeeding are often oversold.
The claims that breastfeeding lowers child obesity and increases IQ are not supported by evidence, but there is some evidence that shows reduced breast cancer risk for mothers who nursed their children. Who knew?
Oster’s chapter on working moms vs. stay-at-home moms feels like one of the book’s rare weaker parts since it leaves much to be desired, as does her chapter on nannies vs. daycare (instead of full-time care from a parent or other close family member). I’m not a mother yet, but those are the parts of parenting that I most worry and wonder about: how to balance dueling love of work with love of children, and what the data support in terms of how to allocate time, money, and resources to give them a good head start. Oster comes up a bit short here.
There are a few areas in which Oster finds the data to be fairly black and white—vaccines are generally safe and important, smoking during pregnancy is verboten for good reason, and SIDS risk can (and should) be easily reduced. Mostly, Oster supports a reasonably relaxed approach to parenting. There are plenty of decisions to be made, but often the effects of such decisions are exaggerated and used to spike new parents’ cortisol levels, making it harder for them to be the diligent-but-calm parent their young child really needs.
For interested parents, or nerdy people who like thinking about ways to apply the economist’s mindset to real life, the natural companion to “Cribsheet” should be fellow economist Bryan Caplan’s “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” which dissects the all-consuming nature of modern parenting, and whether there’s a way to alter it.
Part of Caplan’s thesis involves attempting to parse out some of the factors that often dissuade people from having more kids—namely, that there are a lot of expectations placed on parents, and a lot of excess time, money, and worrying that can be cut out or at least slightly reduced. Caplan’s book suggests that the basic logic of economies of scale can be applied to family life, and that the marginal cost of each additional kid after the first few isn’t quite as high as people think.
Neither Caplan nor Oster preach neglect or tuning your kids out. Instead, they make having children (or, in Caplan’s case, having more children than you initially intended) seem both rewarding and approachable. Both have managed to sneakily strip away some of the scariness of it all, without being unrealistic about the inherently demanding nature of keeping children alive.
As with all major life decisions, there are costs and benefits to each parenting trade-off. But how sad that when it comes to parenting, so much of our popular discourse focuses on the costs, the fears, the things to avoid, and the expenses, not to mention the potential deadliness of nearly every facet of our world. Armed with well-vetted data, Oster reminds us all that there’s a wider range of possible arrangements to create happy kids than we might have initially thought possible.