A confession: I frequently waste large amounts of time looking for my iPad, because I’ve found a rather-too-ingenious place to hide it from my two-year-old. When she was eight months old, and her first teeth bore a small but agonising wound in my breast, I endured eye-watering pain for weeks, every time she fed, rather than dare switch to formula milk. And I often wonder why I, and so many other educated, sensible people I know, can behave so bizarrely – so irrationally – when it comes to raising children.
Is yet another parenting book going to help? It seems dubious, but Emily Oster, a US economist whose new book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to School, wants to settle a few scores.
The book is the eagerly awaited follow-up to her global bestseller, Expecting Better, in which Oster – a professor of economics at Brown University, and mother of two – offered an economist’s take on the scientific evidence on pregnancy, exposing surprising flaws in the advice that’s piled on women with little explanation.
It won rave reviews – Amy Schumer, the comedian, describes Oster as “the non-judgmental girlfriend holding our hand and guiding us through pregnancy and motherhood” – and remains the pregnancy go-to-book for many.
Now, she has turned her attention to the early years, offering up data-driven answers to everything from weaning to potty training to vaccines. With the proliferation of conflicting and anxiety-inducing advice, it couldn’t be more relevant.
Oster tackles contentious issues such as sleep training, also known as letting your child “cry it out” so they learn to fall asleep on their own – a dilemma that, in my experience, divides like no other. “It works,” she tells me down the phone from her home in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with her economist husband Jesse and their two children, Penelope, eight, and Finn, four. “We have randomised trial evidence that these methods result in children sleeping better, for longer, and there’s no evidence that would suggest this is bad for your kid. In the short term, if anything, the evidence suggests sleep-trained kids are happier.”
Oster argues that it reduces maternal depression and increases marital satisfaction – yet too often, she says, parents’ needs are not considered.
“There’s the feeling that if something could have even a tiny positive effect for the baby – even if there’s a huge cost to the parents – you should do it.”
We all have a natural desire to do a good job, she says, but many of today’s parents, particularly women and especially those who work, feel a pressure to be perfect.
“Women who work may feel: ‘I’m choosing my job over my kid, so when I’m with my kids I’d better be the greatest mum ever, to show that I care about them.” The book’s message is to think about the family holistically.”
Current debates about screen time also ignore the reality of daily life, says Oster. “This is an area where we don’t have any evidence because [the technology] hasn’t been around long enough.” It’s no doubt a bad idea for a child to watch hours of TV, but she adds that the existing evidence is “reassuring”, suggesting a little bit each day likely won’t cause a problem.
And it’s important to be realistic: “A lot of us let kids watch TV for half an hour so we can make dinner or have a shower – and making dinner and having a shower is important, too.”
Oster lets her children play on their favourite app for six minutes as a reward for doing their violin practice.
Her book offers reassuring findings for “guilt-ridden mums”, for example over breastfeeding which, Oster says, does have some benefits – but not as many as we’re often led to believe.
“People will say that breastfeeding will make kids smarter, or thinner or healthier, but it isn’t supported. There are correlations – breastfed children do have higher IQs – but that is very likely driven by differences in mums.”
Cribsheet stands out from other parenting books in that it steers clear of recommendations and cast-iron guarantees, instead promising to arm parents with information to make the decisions that are right for them.
“In parenting, we get very wrapped up in the idea there is one right choice about everything.” In truth, she says, “there are many ways to do it that are fine”.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster is published by Profile Books.
The Daily Telegraph