Penguin Press, 352 pages, $28
At my son’s 6-week-old checkup, I was given a wonderful gift by our pediatrician. She waved away my (many) frantic questions about swaddling, nursing, and formula and said all she cared about were vaccines and putting babies to sleep on their backs, since those were the issues with the most support from science.
“Pacifiers, breastfeeding, all the rest of it, is really your preference,” she said.
Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool is essentially a book-length version of my pediatrician’s wisdom. And like me, many parents will likely find reading it a huge relief from the scare stories that seem to pop up everywhere these days.
The author, economist Emily Oster, burst into the parent-lit world with her 2013 hit Expecting Better, which remains required reading for a certain set of pregnant parents. Oster repeats her ingeniously simple formula with Cribsheet: taking conventional wisdom and diving into the research behind it, often showing that “the studies” are thin or nonexistent, or their findings that have been overstated.
The raging debate over infant circumcision? The entire issue boils down to a handful of very small risks and very small benefits. Cry it out? Perfectly safe. Co-sleeping? The practice carries a risk, even if you and your partner aren’t smokers.
But it’s a small risk, and Oster — a professor at Brown and mother of two — frankly acknowledges that it might be one worth taking if it’s the only way parents and baby can sleep. Because sleep matters. A zombielike parent could easily drop an infant, fall asleep at the wheel, or do any number of deadly things thanks to sleep deprivation. That sort of context is often missing from the internet and our parenting messaging boards, where everything from swaddling to potty training timing is presented as a matter of life or death.
Oster’s in less controversial territory here than she was in Expecting Better, which suggested that women can safely drink during pregnancy. (Subsequent research has made that idea look even more dubious.) But the information here — covering the first three years of life — is nonetheless useful, interesting, and surprising, and I found myself underlining facts in red pen, not for reference for this review but to later tell my husband and fellow mom friends. (Extending parental leave from six months to a year has no effect on a child’s future test scores! Those hearing loss tests at birth turn up a lot of false positives!)
Even without sexy claims about cocktails and pregnancy, there’s something provocative about Cribsheet. Its suggestion that, even when there is evidence that something could present a harm, it’s OK for a parent to accept the risk and do it anyway. In a world where parents hesitate to let their kids go down a slide without first consulting their Facebook parenting group, that suggestion feels almost revolutionary.
There is something dangerous about suggesting that our instincts as parents can be trusted over official recommendations. That is, after all, how we end up with measles outbreaks and parents who think that a few hours of Googling trumps decades of established science. But in general, we are due for a correction when it comes to how we raise our babies. Cribsheet is not another call for the end of helicopter parenting or snowplow parenting or whatever kind of parenting is lighting up social media today, and it’s not a call to overthrow medical wisdom; it’s a call for parenting with context, and it’s freeing.
Perhaps no parenting issue lacks context more than breastfeeding, and Oster offers a thorough and clear-eyed assessment of its benefits. She dispatches with many of the overstated claims about nursing’s powers (it will not raise your child’s IQ) while upholding the benefits (in the short term, it reduces gastrointestinal infections and eczema in infants, and it provides some protection from breast cancer for mothers). Overall? “[I]t’s not a tragedy for your baby, or for you” if you can’t nurse or decide not to, Oster wrote. “It is almost certainly worse if you spend a year sitting around feeling bad about not nursing.” That’s a wildly different message than the one women tend to receive before their babies are born.
What is so often missing from conversations about breastfeeding is preference. If the documented benefits of breastfeeding are really so slight, then we come down to personal questions. What does a woman want to do? Not what is best for this baby? But what do I — a human being who happens to also be a mother and didn’t stop having feelings and needs because I produced offspring — want?
If a woman wants to breastfeed because she loves the closeness it brings, or she finds it economical, or it simply feels right, then that is enough. No need to exaggerate the science supporting nursing. (Interestingly, this is more or less the same advice Dr. Spock offered on the topic decades ago.) And conversely, a woman who finds breastfeeding too painful, challenging, or time-consuming needn’t tie herself in knots to justify her decision to use formula, or try to suggest that there is no benefit to breastfeeding. She can make her decision and move on.
That seems to sum up much of Cribsheet: Be informed, do what works, and move on. Because the next challenge — potty training, preschool, calculus — is just around the corner.