Guide for the Perplexed // A new book on parenting combines exhaustive scientific research with common sense

By Carol Unger

Like all new moms, Emily Oster wanted to give her newborn daughter the best possible start in life, but it didn’t take long before her baby’s incessant cries nearly defeated her.

“I tried everything: bouncing her more, bouncing her less, bouncing with swinging, bouncing with nursing. Nothing worked. I wondered if this was normal,” she recalls.

In this situation, many of us would have turned to parenting magazines or websites, pediatricians and relatives—even a shivgger—and most likely receive an earful of confusing and contradictory advice.

Oster did something else: She turned to hard data, studies by scientists who had researched crying babies, and applied the analytical tools she’d mastered in her career as an economist. Oster is an economics professor at an Ivy League school: Brown University, located in Providence, Rhode Island.

Poring over the research she discovered that what her baby was doing—crying nonstop in the early hours of the evening and driving her parents mad—was perfectly normal. We all know this, especially those of us who have parented more than one child, but there is something incredibly validating about hearing it presented as scientific fact. Furthermore, the research indicated that this kind of crying eventually ends, and that mothers can help it along by changing the brand of formula they use, adding probiotics, or both.

Oster was thrilled. As Chazal pointed out, there is no greater joy than the resolution of doubts. So she continued doing research into common parenting problems and applying the findings to her own life.

“When I thought about sleep training or sharing a room with the baby, I really went through the evidence to make a structured choice,” she says. And with hard science behind her, she found herself becoming a calmer, more confident mom.

Eventually Oster decided to share her newfound knowledge in a book, which she cleverly entitled Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting from Birth to Preschool.

“Data-driven” is an understatement. Oster plows through academic journals the way the rest of us read magazines. Unlike any other parenting book ever written, Cribsheet contains a full chapter of annotated footnotes (291 in all), citing papers that were published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Perinatology and many others.

Getting a handle on this amount of data is no simple task, and Oster is a perfectionist. “When I did the research, I read the whole literature—many more papers than are discussed in the book, and I drew conclusions based on the literature overall,” she explains.

That included some hefty reading. For her chapter on vaccines, Oster slogged through a 900-page study published by the Institute of Medicine entitled Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. That study was culled from more than 12,000 papers that looked into 158 vaccine adverse events. “Not beach reading,” Oster jokes. And the conclusion? Unequivocally to vaccinate.

Of course, not all studies are created equally. How do you identify a good study? “This is a hard question,” she writes. “Certain approaches are better; randomized trials, for example, or larger studies. And more studies confirming the same thing tend to increase confidence.” Yet at the end of the day, Oster turns to her intuition. “Sometimes you poke into a study and it doesn’t smell quite right.” In such a case she looks at the relationships between disparate facts to see when they are true and when they are not.

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