Author Emily Oster Shares How Data Can Make Motherhood Less Stressful

From birth decisions to breastfeeding and beyond, looking at the numbers can help.

For many of us, the hardest part about motherhood is making decisions that affect our children. With so much conflicting information out there, it can be easy to get lost in the anxiety of not knowing what to do. And, there's no shortage of things you'll have to make decisions about in the early days of motherhood, when you're exhausted, still healing from birth, and arguably the most vulnerable.

This is why I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read Emily Oster's recent article in the NY Times, "The Data All-Guilt-Ridden Parents Need." The word "guilt" hit home hard because I'd spent so many sleepless nights as a new parent stressing about whether I was making the right choices, when in reality much of the data Oster found suggests there aren't necessarily so many "right" choices as there are choices that work better for different families. Realizing this would've taken a tremendous weight off my shoulders.

Needless to say, we were thrilled to be able to interview Emily about her new book on the same subject, Cribsheet. In the book, she methodically investigates the decisions new parents will have to make, hoping to alleviate some stress in the process. Be sure to check out an excerpt from the book at the end of this interview.

I devoured this book in one sitting — oh how I would've loved to read it when my babies were small!

Mabel + Moxie: First, tell us a little about your new book — what experiences in motherhood inspired you?

Emily: I think the biggest inspiration for me was the feeling of being so overwhelmed — especially at the beginning — by everything that was so new. I often think back to bringing my daughter home and putting down the carseat and thinking, "Oh my gosh, what happens next?" You just have no idea, and on top of that you're exhausted. Every new parent wants to do a great job. You want this probably more than you ever wanted anything in your life, but there is so much conflicting advice about how to achieve that. The combination of exhaustion, uncertainty and conflicting advice can simply be too much. 

My hope is that this book will give new parents a framework to make some of these big decisions in a way that is less stressful, and in a way that makes them more happy and confident in their choices.  The book takes on many of the big parenting decisions — breastfeeding, sleep location and sleep training, vaccinations, the choice of whether to work or not — and looks at what the data really say about the costs and benefits of different choices.  And then I try to provide some guidance about how parents can use this data, combined with their preferences, to make choices that work for them. 

M+M: In looking at motherhood in our country, what are the biggest pressures and stresses new moms face? Why do you think it feels so hard for so many?

Emily: In many ways the biggest stress seems to be the pressure we put on ourselves to be "perfect". It can feel like there is an expectation to leave the delivery room totally under control, makeup and hair done, ready to return to work 40 hours a week while also breastfeeding exclusively, responding every time your child cries and creating elaborate home-cooked baby food. It can be easy to get the impression that this is how it works for other moms, and when you inevitably encounter the reality, it is easy to feel like you failed.  I think we need a more realistic set of expectations and to recognize that this isn't going to work the same for everyone. 

M+M: As you examined the data around breastfeeding, it seems like you discovered a disconnect between how hard breastfeeding is pushed and how new moms are actually supported in establishing and sustaining a positive breastfeeding relationship. What do you think needs to change?  

Emily: Everything!  We need to change in both directions. On the one hand, I would like to see us lighten up on the pressure we put on women to breastfeed. Yes, breastfeeding is great if you want to do it and it works for you. But to continually tell women that this is the only way to give their child the "best" start is not helpful and creates unnecessary feelings of shame. Yes, breastfeeding has some benefits, but they are not as extreme as women are often told. 

On the flip side, there is so little support provided for moms who want to nurse. It can be so hard to get this working with a new baby. Women are often not given enough information about how long it may take for milk to come in or interventions that make breastfeeding easier. There is usually some breastfeeding support in hospitals, but rarely at home. Where do you turn for help when you need it? I'd like to see policy turn to focus much more on helping women do this and much less on telling them how important it is. 

M+M: How has collecting data helped change your approach and feelings about motherhood?

Emily: For me, I find the data relaxing. This is probably why I became an economist. But I think beyond that, in writing this book I was frequently forced to confront the limitations of data. There are a few cases where I think the data really does tell you what to do — introduce allergens early, for example, or vaccinate your kids. But in many more cases the evidence helps you think about the decision but doesn't tell you what decision to make.  This was sobering for someone who always wants the data to have the answers, and I think it has caused me to be a little bit less bossy when people ask my advice!

M+M: What advice would you offer new or expectant moms reading this interview?

Emily: Other than to read my book? (Just kidding). The main thing is to trust yourself and your choices. We can be better and happier parents if we make choices that work for us and do not worry if those choices are not the same as other people. 

Curious about Emily's new book? Cribsheet is available on Amazon here. And, you can read an excerpt from the book below before you buy!

Excerpt From Cribsheet by Emily Oster

As a parent, you want nothing more than to do the right thing for your children, to make the best choices for them. At the same time, it can be impossible to know what those best choices are. Things crop up that you never thought about—even with a second kid, probably even with a fifth kid. The world, and your child, surprises you all the time. It is hard not to second-guess yourself, even on the small things.

One of the great themes of your parenting life will be you have way less control than you think you do. You might ask why, if I know this to be true, have I written a guide to parenting in the early years? The answer is that you do have choices, even if not control, and these choices are important. The problem is that the atmosphere around parenting rarely frames these choices in a way that gives parents autonomy.

We can do better, and data and economics, surprisingly, can help. My goal with this book is to take some of the stress out of the early years by arming you with good information and a method for making the best decisions for your family.

I also hope Cribsheet will offer a basic, data-derived map of the big issues that come up in the first three years of being a parent. I found that hard to come by in my own experience.

Most of us are parenting later than our parents did; we’ve been functional adults a lot longer than any previous generation of new parents. That’s not just a neat demographic fact. It means we’re used to autonomy, and thanks to technology, we are used to having pretty much limitless information in our decision-making.

We’d like to approach parenting the same way, but the sheer number of decisions causes information overload. Especially early on, every day seems to have another challenge, and when you look for advice, everyone says something different. And, frankly, they all seem like experts relative to you. It’s daunting even before you factor in your depleted postpartum state and the tiny new resident of your home who won’t latch onto your breast, sleep, or stop screaming. Take a deep breath.

There are many big decisions: Should you breastfeed? Should you sleep train, and with what method? What about allergies? Some people say avoid peanuts, others say give them to your child as soon as possible—which is right? Should you vaccinate, and if so, when? And there are small ones: Is swaddling actually a good idea? Does your baby need a schedule right away?

These questions don’t die out as your child ages, either. Sleeping and eating just start to stabilize, and then you’ll get your first tantrum. What on earth do you do with that? Should you discipline your kid? How? Exorcism? Sometimes it seems like it. You may just need a break for a minute. Is it okay to let the kid watch TV? Maybe one time the internet told you watching TV will turn your child into a serial killer. It’s difficult to remember the details—but maybe don’t risk it? But boy, a break would be nice.

And on top of these questions is the endless worrying, “Is my kid normal?” When your children are very little, “normal” is whether they are peeing enough, crying too much, gaining enough weight. Then it’s how much they sleep and how, whether they roll over, whether they smile. Then do they crawl, do they walk, when do they run? And can they talk? Do they say enough different words?

How can we get the answer to these questions? How do we know the “right” way to parent? Does such a thing even exist? Your pediatrician will be helpful, but they tend to (correctly) focus on areas of actual medical concern. When my daughter showed no interest in walking at fifteen months, the doctor simply told me that if she didn’t walk by eighteen months, we would start screening for developmental delay. But whether your child is so delayed that they need early intervention is different than whether they are simply a bit slower than the average. And it doesn’t tell you if late milestones have any consequences.

At a more basic level, your doctor isn’t always around. It’s three a.m. and your three-week-old will only sleep while you’re right next to him. Is it okay to have him sleep in your bed? In this day and age, you’re most likely to turn to the internet. Bleary-eyed, holding the baby, your partner (what an asshole—this is all their fault anyway) snoring next to you, you look through websites, parenting advice, Facebook feeds.

This can leave you worse off than you were before. There’s no lack of opinions on the internet, and many of them are from people you probably trust—your friends, mommy bloggers, people who claim to know the research. But they all say different things. Some of them tell you that, yes, having your baby sleep in your bed is great. It’s the natural way to do it, and there’s no risk as long as you don’t smoke or drink. They make a case that the people who say it’s risky are just confused; they’re thinking about people who don’t do this the “right way.”

But, on the other hand, the official recommendations say definitely not do this. Your child could die. There is no safe way to co-sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics tells you to put the baby in the bassinet next to your bed. He wakes up immediately.

This is all made worse by the fact that these comments are (often) not delivered in a calm manner. I have witnessed many an intense Facebook group discussion in which a decision about sleep deteriorates into, effectively, judgement about who is a good parent. You’ll have people telling you that choosing to co-sleep isn’t just a bad decision, it’s one that would be made by someone who doesn’t care about their baby at all.

In the face of all this conflicting information, how can you decide what is right not just for the baby, not just for you, but for your family overall? This is the crucial question of parenting.

I’m an economist; a professor whose work focuses on health economics. In my day job I analyze data, try to tease causality out of the relationships I study. And then I try to use that data inside some economic framework—one that thinks carefully about costs and benefits—to think about decision-making.

We know being a parent means getting a lot of advice, but this advice is almost never accompanied by an explanation of why something is true or not, or to what degree we can even know it’s true. And by not explaining why, we remove people’s ability to think about these choices for themselves, with their own preferences playing a role. Parents are people, too, and they deserve better.

The goal of this book is not to fight against any particular piece of advice, but against the idea of not explaining why. Armed with the evidence, and a way to think about decisions, you can make choices that are right for your family. If you’re happy with your choices, that’s the path to happier and more relaxed parenting. And, hopefully, to a bit more sleep.

From CRIBSHEET: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2019 by Emily Oster.

Freelance Writer/Editor, Quirky Homeschool Mom/Teacher, Occasional Traveler — contact me: