Must Read: “Cribsheet” by Emily Oster

yellow book cover

By Mia Weber

It can’t be denied that we’re living in an age of information—and that can be a double edged sword,

especially when it comes to parent- ing. On one hand, there’s more access to facts and figures than ever…but on the other hand, it’s increasing more difficult to sort through what’s real and what’s #FakeNews.

And that’s where Emily Oster—a mother-of-two, author, economist,
and professor at Brown—comes in. In her first book, 2013’s Expecting
Better
, Oster sought to use the power of verified data to dismantle common pregnancy myths; and now, with the recent release of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool (which, in addition to much book-world buzz, has garnered positive blurbs from the likes of Amy Schumer and Dr. Harvey Karp), she’s hoping to achieve similar goals in the realm of birth through age 3.

Cribsheet looks at the evidence around things like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, vaccinations, and potty-training—and it’s about trying to give parents the tools to make happier and more confident decisions in those domains of their lives,” Oster, whose daughter is 8 and son is 4, explains. “I do think there is a lot of demand for the approach of using evidence to make choices in parenting and I think there’s a need to take down a notch some of the high-energy fights that people have in the area of parenting.”

We caught up with Oster this spring during a moment of calm in between work, motherhood, and spreading the word about her new book.

portrait of a woman
Emily Oster. Photo by Dana Smith

There’s so much parenting informa- tion out there, but there’s also a sense of anxiety amongst new parents when it comes to sorting through it. Did you have a mission with this book of sharing information but also saying that it’s okay to not know everything?

What I would like people to come away from this book with is a sense of confidence in the choices they’re making. That’s one of the things that’s so hard about parenting, especially in the era of evidence everywhere—there’s so much information and you don’t know which of it is right, and there are a large number of opinions from people who want to share them with you. So, the book does two things: One is that it actually digs through and shares the evidence with you and provides some information about which of the facts that you’ve heard are real, and which are not, and it helps you get to the real evidence. And then it also says: “You need to combine the evidence with your family’s preferences in order to make the choice that’s right for you.” Once you’ve made that choice, know that it’s the right choice for you, and it [might not be] the same choice that some other people make. When people say to you: “Oh, I did this other thing,” you can say: “Yeah, but I’m confident that this was the right choice for my family.”

What was the research process like? Were there any particular challenges you faced in researching the different topics?

For something like breastfeeding, there’s actually a huge amount of evidence. The challenge is that there are literally thousands of papers about the impact of breastfeeding on different things. In the process of researching that, I read through the literature, I read hundreds of papers, and I had, in some cases, research assistants do the same thing in parallel to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Then, I really tried to sort through which of the studies were more compelling or have a better claim to show a causal relationship between breastfeeding and a certain outcome… There are other parts of the book where the challenge is that we just don’t have as much research as we would like. For something like screen time—a lot of parents wonder: “Is it okay for my kid to play games on the iPad?” And the truth is that we just don’t have any evidence, so you’re going to have to make a choice that you think is right without any evidence.

To state an obvious fact: Babies are, by nature, very unpredictable. How did the factor of babies being babies effect the direction you went in with a data-driven book?

It’s certainly very humbling and I think that’s why I wrote this after having two kids. I think that when you’re a parent and you have one kid, you have the feeling of: “I know what I’m doing, and I know how it works.” But when you get to the second kid, there are ways in which they’re easier and ways in which they’re harder, and you’re like: “Wait! I thought I had figured this out! What happened?” Part of that dovetails nicely with the idea that not every family will make the same choices—not every family will make the same choices for even their two, or three, or four children. Every kid is different. You can use some of this evidence but you have to also think about what works for that particular kid. You have to give up a little bit of control, and, for me, that is so hard. I think that some of our emphasis on using data and using evidence is about a desire for control… To some extent, we have to recognize that parenting is about a loss of control, in many ways, and you’re not going to be able to prepare for everything and you’ll have to let it go.

Do you have any advice for parents who are overwhelmed by all the information out there?

Just relax—there are a lot of good choices! And also, no one single choice that you make as a parent is going to make or break your child’s success or happiness. There’s this idea, particularly when you’re tired, of: “If I don’t do this for my kid, they’re not going to have the best start and it’s all downhill from there!” But I want to remind people that there isn’t anything like that—if you screw up the swaddle or you do the sleep training too early—no one of these things is going to be the most important thing. Remembering that can be helpful for people in terms of keeping some perspective.

To learn more about Emily Oster and Cribsheet, visit penguinrandomhouse.com.