Yesterday, I listened to a great episode of the podcast, Freakanomics called “The Data-Driven Guide to Sane Parenting.” In this week’s episode the host, Stephen Dubnar, interviewed Emily Oster, an economist who has analyzed a huge amount of the data behind common advice given to pregnant women and new parents (ex: avoid caffeine during pregnancy, and it’s dangerous to let your baby sleep in the bed with you) and explains the conventional wisdom and when it’s best to follow convention and where you can be flexible.
This whole episode really sang to me.
- The mathematician in me really appreciates the way that Oster puts the actual risks our children face into context. One of her refrains is comparing the risk of whatever you’re concerned about to driving a car. No one would consider you to be a monster of a parent to put your child in a car and drive somewhere, but cars are, in fact, much riskier than it is for most people to sleep with a baby in their bed (she adds important caveats – if you’re drinking or smoking in the room with the baby, or you have another animal or child in the bed, the risk increases a lot).
- I also appreciate the way she talks about vaccines. I’ve written before about why I decided to vaccinate my kids. Oster acknowledges that there are risks to vaccines: many kids experience a fever after getting a vaccine, and some even experience seizures. While a fever is unpleasant and a febrile seizure is terrifying, there is unlikely to be any lasting impact to your child if they experience these outcomes. Many of the other risks people feel are associated with vaccines (that they cause developmental delays or disorders) are unfounded. It’s much riskier to not vaccinate than it is to vaccinate — especially if you have no reason to believe your child’s immune system is otherwise compromised.
- Oster really takes the pressure off of parents. She puts into context that while there are some benefits to breastfeeding babies in the short term, if you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed your baby, it is unlikely to affect their long term health or intelligence. If your baby is in child care, they will still be healthily attached to you. If you let your baby cry it out, they will learn how to sleep after a few days, and if they are sleeping well, the risk of maternal depression drops significantly (and a depressed mommy really isn’t great for a baby, so whatever you can do to get more sleep is a good thing for you and your baby). Your child probably isn’t at risk of developing a severe peanut allergy, so it’s probably better to expose them to peanuts early. And, data aside, if something doesn’t work for you or does seem to bother your baby, you don’t have to do it.
I felt like all of this information and the kind way that Dubnar and Oster approached the interview was a gift to parents everywhere. I know that I have agonized over many decisions as a parent, and I’ve always wanted to do what was best for my kids, even if it was definitely not best for me. I think that Oster’s approach to putting information in context and combing through data so you don’t make yourself crazy avoiding all risks (which really can’t be done), and being smart about balancing the risks and benefits of the decisions you have to make as a parent were really wonderful, and now I really want to read her new book Cribsheet even though my kids are past the “birth to age three” age group.