with Economist and Author Emily Oster
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- The Journey To Analyzing Data Related To Pregnancy And Motherhood
- Alcohol While Pregnant
- Coffee While Pregnant
- Weight In Pregnancy
- Sleep Training & Cosleeping
- The “Decision Wrapper”
Growing a whole human and keeping it alive can feel daunting! What are you not allowed to eat while you’re pregnant? More importantly, what can you actually eat? How do you know?
And the decisions don’t get easier once the baby comes. Am I damaging my child for life if I sleep train because sleep deprivation is getting to us all?
What if there was an easy way to make these decisions? And what if every new study didn’t contradict the one before? Emily Oster is a professor at Brown University and the author of The Parent Data series is here to help us out with a framework for these decisions!
The Journey To Analyzing Data Related To Pregnancy And Motherhood
“I got pregnant, and then I was in the space,” Emily said. She was used to seeking out information and finding guidance as she made decisions, but the information just wasn’t there when she was pregnant with her oldest child who is now 10.
“So much of my day-to-day professor work is how to find data—what makes good data, and what makes less good data,” she explained. The tools she used in her job as an economics professor were the same tools that allowed her to sift through the various studies and literature to separate the good data from the not-so-good.
Not all data is created equal. “In general, if we can randomize something it’s better than not,” she explained. “When we look at data on lifestyle questions—like caffeine, sushi, deli meat—we’re more commonly comparing women who make different choices.” One thing to look for in lifestyle studies is how the data accounts for other differences among participants.
Data can be manipulated. That’s important to remember. If a study seems to be an outlier, you may want to take it with a grain of salt.
One area where what stands as common knowledge doesn’t really reflect the better data is breastfeeding. “The bill of goods that we’re sold there is ‘give your kids the best start,’’ Emily said. What mom doesn’t want to give her kid the best start? She explained there are some early life benefits for baby from breastfeeding like better digestion and less gastrointestinal illnesses in the first year.
“But when we look for evidence around all of these long-term impacts on your kids—IQ, obesity, or diabetes—we just don’t see that. You do see correlations but they’re really driven by the fact that women who choose to breastfeed are really different in all kinds of demographic ways before having a baby,” she said.
Our culture often clings to the mantra, “Breast is best,” but when you dive into the data, the tangible benefits are short-lived. The result of this is many moms who don’t want to or can’t breastfeed feel like a failure, and may push themselves to their breaking point trying to make breastfeeding work.
Emily told me she was so passionate about writing this part of the book, because of the emails she got from DADS. Dads. Not moms. The emails would talk about a mom sacrificing herself to breastfeed and then beg her to talk about it since Mom read her books and trusted her.
Can you imagine how frustrating and desperate the situation must seem for someone’s partner to reach out to an author they don’t know in hopes of finding help?
Alcohol While Pregnant
We generally accept the blanket statement, “Expecting mothers should avoid alcohol.” That strips away a lot of decisions and agency before we’ve even made it to motherhood. The data is much more nuanced than this. Too much alcohol definitely can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, but one glass of wine in a week probably won’t cause fetal alcohol syndrome.
“Recently the World Health Organization suggested that women of childbearing age shouldn’t be drinking alcohol, because of the possibility they might be pregnant,” Emily said. That’s extreme. Should men of childbearing age also avoid alcohol to prevent damaging their sperm? That shows no respect for women’s choices and also calls their judgment into question. Most adults are capable of knowing how much they should drink.
Coffee While Pregnant
“A lot of the worry with caffeine is linked to miscarriages,” Emily said. This is another place where you find a correlation and a lot of confounding factors. Caffeine doesn’t seem to cause negative outcomes for the baby, and the miscarriages seemed to be a combination of age and nausea.
Weight In Pregnancy
Being weighed every month is not fun, and sometimes you can feel judged by medical staff based on how much or how little weight you gained. I’ve had women tell me when they gained “too much” weight, doctors have sent them home with diets.
But when we look at the data, gaining too much weight is almost better than gaining too little. The most common outcome linked to weight gain is a bigger baby, but being too tiny isn’t good for baby either.
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty. Sometimes we might cling too tightly to these guidelines, because it’s something we can control. That can give us a sense of security. But if you’re having to evaluate and research every choice you make, you can take a step back and think about how much anxiety you’re having. If the anxiety is obsessive, you might want to get help.
But if there is one thing we can take from how nuanced these guidelines really should be based on what the data actually says, it’s that this stuff isn’t as black and white as it seems. If your steak is slightly less than well done one time, it’s probably not going to harm your baby.
Sleep Training & Cosleeping
“What you see in these randomized trials is when people sleep train their babies, babies sleep better. It’s not perfect, not every baby sleeps through the night after two days of training, but on average sleep is improved. On average parental mood is improved,” Emily explained.
“You see big postpartum depression improvement in some of these studies,” she said. This makes sense, because we know what the lack of sleep does to your brain. When you’re not sleeping you’re in a prime state for postpartum depression and anxiety. But it’s also not an issue if you don’t want to sleep train.
“The flip of this is the cosleeping. The rhetoric there is, ‘if you do this, you’ll kill your baby,’ and that’s overstated too,” Emily said. There are some elevated risks of SIDS in cosleeping, but if you practice cosleeping it’s minimal.
“The decision wrapper” is a decision-making wrapper to help you think about the data as you try to make decisions for older kids and your family.
“The first step of the decision-making is to frame the question,” Emily said. “What are you really asking?” Sometimes we try to frame the question without including our options. “What do I want to drink?” If you only have coffee and tea, the real question is, “Coffee or tea?” That can become an easier choice.
Once you’ve asked the question, you can collect the data you need to make the decision. A lot of times as you try to make decisions for older kids, one thing will come at the cost of another. If your kid wants to be on a competitive dance team, this could come at a cost of family dinner or church. Depending on your priorities, the decision may already be made for you. “Information gathering in this period isn’t just data,” Emily pointed out.
“Tune into your values,” she said. Writing down your values might help you make some of these decisions more easily.
We can start with the values piece and move into fact-finding. “Often we don’t say when we’re going to make our decision,” Emily said. Set a time! You may not be sure if it’s the right decision. That’s okay. “What you can be sure of is that you made the decision in the right way,” she said.
“We should plan the follow-up when we make the decision,” Emily said. “What’s the point when we want to revisit?” If your kid wants to try a sport, we can try it this season and see if we want to try again next year. And really revisit it, because sometimes it can be easy to continue with things just because that’s what you always do.
If the anxiety you’re experiencing feels like too much, help is available! We’re here to support you, so check out the wellness center to connect with a therapist in your area.
And if you’re expecting during these turbulent times and constantly bombarded with messages about what to do for baby, but people seem to have forgotten you exist, we’ve got you! I’ve put together this postpartum checklist, so you can have your sushi and eat it too!
Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool and Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong–and What You Really Need to Know. She writes the newsletter ParentData and her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg. She has two children.
- Book: Expecting Better: Why The Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—And What You Really Need To Know
- Book: CribSheet
- Book: The Family Firm
- Emily’s Newsletter
- Postpartum Prep List