Data-Driven Parenting
Emily Oster
PhD, Professor, Researcher & Author of Cribsheet

As a new parent, every decision feels consequential – and you never know for sure if you’re doing it right. While there are no right answers to parenting, there is data that can guide us to make better decisions. Emily Oster, an award-winning economist at Brown University, wrote the bestselling book on it: Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool. She’s with us to share what the data says about many of the big questions and topics parents face, from breastfeeding, sleep training, work guilt, vaccines, daycare, and more. Emily (a mom of two) explains how to cut through the social media and societal noise and use data and personal preferences in tandem to make better parenting decisions.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Surprising evidence about peanut allergies – is early exposure the way to avoid them? 
  • The truth about breastfeeding – what the data does and doesn’t say
  • Advice on co-sleeping and the often overlooked benefits of sleep training
  • The bottom line on the safety and efficacy of vaccines
  • Advice for parents who are juggling work and family 
  • How daycare affects kids’ behavioral and educational development
  • Why sometimes just relaxing and not overthinking is the best decision a parent can make

Click here to read the full episode. 

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Full Transcript

Data-Driven Parenting

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work. 

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but it gets a little bit easier when you've got data on your side. That's according to Emily Oster. She's an award-winning economist at Brown University and a bestselling author. Her latest book is called Crib Sheet: A Data-Driven Guide To Better, More Relaxed Parenting from Birth to Pre-school. During our time together we talked about why both data and our own preferences are equally as important when deciding what's best for our kids, our families and ourselves. We cover a lot of ground in this episode, everything from breastfeeding to co-sleeping to vaccines, to the highs and lows of being a working parent in 2020, and so much more. 

I love talking to Emily, and I think you're going to love hearing from her too. Before we get to Emily, I want to take a quick moment to ask you all a favor. If you like what you hear on this podcast, please consider leaving a review or drop us a rating in whatever podcast app you use. The very best thing you can do is share the podcast with a friend, your partner, a co-worker, anyone who you think would enjoy the show. You can even start by sending them this episode. I promise it's a good one. Quick requests over, back to the show. Here's Emily, have a listen. Emily, I can't tell you how excited we are to have you here today. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Emily Oster: Thank you for having me. 

Emily Paisner: When you're a new parent, and I remember these days so vividly, you are extremely sleep-deprived. Every decision you make feels so weighty and massive, and it's so easy for even the littlest of decisions to quickly spiral into being just so overwhelming. Especially when everyone from every angle is coming at you, giving you "Advice". Taking a cue from the subtitle of your new book Crib Sheet what is it about taking a data-driven approach to parenting that makes us better, more relaxed parents? 

Oster: I think there's really two pieces. One is that I think that for me at least, data is relaxing, and the idea that there would be evidence that you could bring to bear on the questions that you care about and things were really, there are facts to rely on. I think that that can be relaxing. The other piece I'm trying to get at with the subtitle is the idea that some relaxation comes from having confidence in the choices that you make and so a lot of the pitch of the book is that, yes, the data's there and something you should look at, but that you should also combine it with your preferences and thinking about what works for your family. 

That that piece is what helps you relax, is knowing that you made the right choice for your family, even if it isn't the choice of the people who are yelling at you. I had many of them as it sounds like you did as well. 

Emily Paisner: There's probably a case to be made for anything that you're trying to do. When comes to parenthood, there's a study out there that probably supports one side or the other. It can be really confusing and frustrating for parents who are being bombarded with conflicting information. How do you start to make sense of all of this information that's coming at you? 

Oster: I think one thing I would tell people in general, is try not to listen to everything. One of my least favorite things is a study shows, a study can show anything. There is always, this is a study for every stupid idea that comes into people's heads. So really trying to make good choices about thinking about the evidence all together, not just what any single study shows. I think the other important piece of that is trying to focus on the decisions that are important. It gets back to what you said at the beginning. There are a lot of random choices that you can make as a new parent, and things that you can get really obsessed with that don't matter. One of the things I often talk about is when my daughter came home from the hospital, they told us to put mittens on her so she wouldn't scratch her face. 

Then my mom came and my mom told us, "You have to take the mittens off or she'll never learn to use her hands." In the moment I remember being like, "Oh my God, I've got to focus on this. I've got to understand like mittens, no mittens, what's the right thing?" But of course, it doesn't matter if your kid wears mittens or not, they're going to use their hands. They probably won't scratch their face. This is not the most important decision. Some of, I think trying to corral the morass of evidence and stuff is just really saying, let me think about what are the most important decisions I have to make, and then try to invest a little more and understanding what the overall evidence says about those, rather than ping-ponging between all of the possible things you could find on the internet. 

Emily Paisner: Now that your kids are a little bit older and minor as well, we can look back at some of those situations with some levity and think, what was I thinking? At the time, they feel like big massive decisions that have implications for our children's future. 

Oster: I looked for evidence on this. I mean, that's no joke. I have a paper sitting on my computer entitled something about mitten injury. It turns out like there's no evidence about mittens. There's just one example of a baby that was injured by two type mitten but it really in the moment you're like I got to know this is my kid's future. 

Emily Paisner: I don't even know how you start to think about that when you're probably very sleep-deprived. What surprised you the most from your research? Was there something that stood out to you that really took you aback about what the data was telling you versus what you expected to be true? 

Oster: I think one of the biggest pieces surprises in the data is about peanuts. When I had my daughter, I was told not to expose her to peanuts until she was one or even two because if you expose kids too early, they could develop an allergy and the allergic reaction could be really bad because they're very small. We actually waited a long time to give her peanut butter. Then basically between the birth of my daughter and the birth of my son- 

Emily Paisner: Which wasn't very long. 

Oster: - which wasn't very long, it was just four years. The literature on this totally changed. Some researchers in the UK published this big randomized trial, which basically showed that exposing kids to peanuts early made them less likely to be allergic to peanuts and not just a little bit less likely but tremendously less likely. There's a 70% decline in the chance of a peanut allergy. I think that was pretty surprising and they changed the recommendation. It is now, you should be giving your kids peanuts on exit from the womb, just put the peanuts on them. That was surprising but it's also, I think a big caution about the kinds of public health advice that we give. There are a lot of people who are allergic to peanuts because they got some bad advice about avoiding them. 

Emily Paisner: That is very surprising and I think, you hit the nail on the head that the recommendation changed so quickly. You tackle a lot of different issues in Crib Sheet. You spend a good portion of the book talking about breastfeeding and busting some of the myths that are so commonly thought of. Tell me, is breast best? 

Oster: Breast is best but I think maybe not in as much best as people say. That's sometimes how I express it. I try to go through the evidence on the very, very large number of benefits that people have claimed. People will tell you breastfeeding will make your kids smarter or they will make them thinner. It'll make them, you'll make you happier, less stress, sleeping better, better marriage, better friendships, et cetera. 

Emily Paisner: That’s a lot. 

Oster: That's a lot, it's a lot of claims. I think when you really dig into which of these claims are actually supported in the data, you do find some which are supported. Breastfed kids do seem to have better digestive health in the first year, maybe slightly fewer ear infections in the first year. Actually, moms who breastfeed tend to be less likely to have breast cancer. There are some benefits, but that's the totality of them. When we look at many of these things about the long-term impacts on your kids, the data just not support those. It does not look like breastfeeding raises your kid's IQ. 

It doesn't look like it makes them thin, or it doesn't look like it makes them more disease resistant when they're older. I think we know when people say breast is best, I think that there's this sense in which that's right because probably there are some benefits, but when they say it in the tone that they say it, it seems to imply a level of vastness that I think is not supported in the data. 

Emily Paisner: When you see moms, who are not breastfeeding sometimes they get a lot of harsh criticism for that and that doesn't seem fair either. I have some friends who wanted nothing more than to breastfeed, and they just had challenges with it and they weren't able to. I think that's pretty unfair. 

Oster: I think the messaging is so extreme and breastfeeding is hard. It isn't something that is easy for-- Some people find it easy, but many of us didn't find it easy. I think that when you are not finding it easy that there is then also this pressure of, you're not giving your kid the best start. What is wrong with you? I think that's really damaging. The people who I hear from who feel the worst about their early parenting are often those who really wanted to breastfeed and for some reason it just didn't work for them. Do you end up spending a bunch of these early months of your kid's life feeling guilty? Which is not helpful. 

Emily Paisner: A lot of our listeners are working moms and a lot of them go back to work after probably too short an amount of time, but pumping at work can be difficult. Any tips or wisdom from your book, you can give us that? 

Oster: Pumping is the worst and people hate it more than anything else is one thing. There have been some advances in pumping technology, making it a bit easier to manage, but I think the truth is, it's just a huge pain to pump at work. I don't think that the world has come up with any great solutions to doing that. 

Emily Paisner: Certainly, a lot of employers have started to make that a little bit easier for their breastfeeding moms? 

Oster: Yes, I think there are ways that things could be made easier. Dedicated lactation rooms, offices with doors, a time in the day to pump. I think the truth is it's just a lot of work to pump and it's a lot of minutes every day. If you're going to travel it's a lot of lugging your breast pump through the airport. Airports and do not have the accommodations that your employer-- They're not required to provide those accommodations for you. Unless you have one of those pumping pod things that they've put in the airports now you end up on the floor in the bathroom at LaGuardia. 

Emily: I bet if we asked- 

Oster: That's my worst place. 

Emily Paisner: I was just about to say, I bet if we asked people what their most memorable place that they pumped we get a lot of really interesting responses. 

Oster: I once asked this on Twitter and I would say by far the modal bad experience was the Amtrak bathroom. There's a people pumping in the bathroom at Amtrak. The thing is people don't want you to be in the bathroom for that long at Amtrak so they're banging on the door. 

Emily Paisner: My worst was in the entryway of a restaurant that was packed full of people waiting to get in and there was nowhere to go but the lobby. That was the worst. 

Oster: Great, humbling experience. 


Emily Paisner: Next up, let's talk about sleep and whether you let your baby cry it out or not. Are those people that let their babies cry are they are horrible parents? 

Oster: No. There's such a big debate about this issue of crying out. Just for people who do not have children who are listening to this, this is question of whether when you want your kid to go to sleep, do you allow them to cry until they fall asleep? If you do that then they will basically learn to fall asleep on their own, and they will stop for a few days. Typically, they will stop crying and they will just go to sleep. On the one hand, actually this is great because your baby falls asleep more easily and then they get more sleep and then you get more sleep. There's a lot of randomized evidence that this works in the sense of improving baby's sleep patterns. 

On the flip side, people will say, "This is really bad for your baby. Then they will not be attached to you in forever. They won't be able to form attachments to you or anyone else." Good news is that that does not appear to be at all supported in the data. When researchers look at evidence on what happens after you sleep train a baby they tend to be happier and better rested. When you look at them at the age of five or six, there just aren't any detectable differences on any of these dimensions between kids who are sleep training kids or not. 

The thing I think is worth noting when you read this literature is a lot of the outcomes that they're studying are actually outcomes for the parents. It looks like if you sleep train your kid they sleep better and so do you. That has really good effects for preventing maternal depression, for improving marital satisfaction. The household tends to be happier. I think that is missed a little bit in this discussion. We spend a lot of time when we're talking about sleep training talking about, is it good for the kid? Is it bad for the kid? Without saying actually there's also a bunch of other people in the household and they might be benefiting from this. They should get some points in the ledger. 

Emily Paisner: Is there any data to support how to handle a 10-year old that still doesn't sleep? 

Oster: Unfortunately, my book stops at preschool. 

Emily Paisner: I should probably dig into that one. What about co-sleeping? Again, there's a lot out there about saying it's really dangerous. That we're setting up bad habits when we invite our children into our bed. What can you tell us about co-sleeping? 

Oster: With co-sleeping, there's two pieces of it. The piece people tend to focus on is just the role of co-sleeping in this space of safe sleep. When you're talking about an infant like a very small infant, what is the safest sleep environment? People are told your kid should sleep alone on their back in their crib with no other stuff in it. I think that the evidence does suggest that that is the safest sleep environment. That co-sleeping with your infant has some risks. What I talk about in the book is that those risks are small. 

Those risks are in the space of the kinds of risks that you're implicitly taking every day when you drive around in your car, for example and you just do everyday activities. What that means is that the choice to co-sleep or not is something that should be something the parents think about. 

Emily Paisner: This seems like one of those areas where your preferences really do come into play as a family. 

Oster: Yes, exactly. One of the things I talk about is the question of having the baby in your room or not. The recommendation is that your baby be in your room. I think maybe the evidence suggests that's slightly safer than having them in another room in terms of preventing bad outcomes. It is also the case that for a lot of people they don't want the kid in their room. This is true for me. My husband and I did not want the baby in our room, that was not going to work for our family. In the end, we looked at the evidence but we decided that our family's preferences were to have the baby in its own room and that combining those preferences with the data this was the right choice for us. 

Emily Paisner: Let's talk about a big and controversial topic right now, and that is vaccines. I thought that your explanation in the book was really, really well stated. Can you tell us right now, once and for all, what's the bottom line on vaccines? 

Oster: Vaccines are safe and effective. There are some small risks to vaccines, but they are incredibly tiny, and they almost all accrue to kids with other complications, so kids who are immune-compromised or have other significant issues that would be detectable. For healthy children, the range of possible negative effects of vaccines are incredibly limited. Your kid could get a fever. That's basically it and a lot of kids get a fever after vaccination. That is not dangerous. That is just the body's reaction to the immune challenge. On the flip side, vaccines are effective in preventing vaccine-preventable diseases. 

I think that's something that seems obvious, but isn't maybe part of the discourse all the time, because we have not seen a lot of vaccine-preventable diseases. Unlike my parents, I have never seen anybody with measles and I do not know any children who died of measles, but for the people who are in our parent's generation, there were a lot of people who had measles and some of them probably died of measles because that is something you can die from. I think part of what is fueling some of this vaccine discussion is a lack of realization that actually vaccines are the thing that are standing between us and a lot of 4 million cases of measles and 1,000 measles deaths every year. 

Emily Paisner: How much research did you do around that specific area? 

Oster: I did a lot. Among other things. I read the Institute of Medicine vaccine safety report from 2012. It's about 1,500 pages long. It's a really gripping tome on this and then I went back and I read a lot of these individual papers, particularly on some of these things that people are most worried about, like the links with autism. You can dig into why did we get this idea that vaccines were linked with autism? What does the evidence actually say about that? That's a case where, again, we have just a tremendous amount of evidence that vaccines are not linked to autism. 

Emily Paisner: A lot of our listeners are working parents. Can you talk about your perspective on what it's like being a working parent in 2020? 

Oster: I think, on the one hand, there's a lot of great stuff about being a working parent. I think that we have relative to 35 years ago probably made a lot of progress on gender equality and accommodating things. I think the fact is, it is challenging to work and to have kids, and I think the logistics of doing that are just really are just really hard. I find myself-- We were just talking before we started about snow days and snow days are my next emesis. I can't believe it ever snows and every time I got to get up move somewhere with no snow days because just thinking about how do you manage, trying to do a great job at your job and trying to do a great job with your kids? It's not easy, and everybody's going to manage it differently. 

Emily Paisner: Most parents that go back to work after having a child go through the debate of do I get a nanny? Do I put my child in daycare or do I decide to stay at home? Can you talk a little bit about how daycare affects our kids? 

Oster: If you are sending your kid to a high-quality daycare, and I can say in a second what that means, but we'll look at high-quality daycare versus other options. A nanny, a stay at home parent. any differences across kids that seem to result from that are very small. Actually, it looks like kids who go to daycare, maybe they have slightly more behavior problems, but they also perform slightly better in school. All these effects are really minor and are well within the natural range that it's occurring across kids. People ask what does it mean to have a high-quality daycare? Does that mean fancy snacks and Mandarin instruction, but actually high-quality daycare just means a daycare with people who care about the kids and are engaging with them and playing with them and not hitting them. You should look for a daycare like that, but I think a lot of parents would naturally do that anyway. 

Emily Paisner: I think that that's an important clarification to make, because, as you probably know, daycare is very, very expensive. 

Oster: Yes, I do know. 

Emily Paisner: It's actually a, as you also probably know, hot topic in the presidential debates right now, is how do we provide people with more affordable daycare? I just think that it's helpful for our listeners to hear that a high-quality daycare really is about the people who are caring for your children. Not that it's like you said, the fancy snacks and whatnot. 

Oster: No, and my kids have gone to a variety of different daycares and some of which were much higher on the fanciness scale, but were definitely not as good on the does this person love the kids, and are they on the floor playing with them scale? You really see that as, in fact impacting the kids’ experience. 

Emily Paisner: I want to ask a question that may be a little bit uncomfortable, but there may be some skeptics who read your book and say, you're not a medical professional, and you are having a lot of different opinions in the book. What would you say to them about these findings? 

Oster: A lot of what the book focuses on is really understanding what's in the data and thinking about causality and are the relationships we see in the data causal. That actually is something about which I am an expert, and that is my job is I am a person who thinks about methods in causal inference. That is literally my subfield of economics. That's where my research is. In that sense, there's an expertise, but it is true that I am not a medical doctor. The other thing I will say is I did spend a lot of time talking to pediatricians when I worked on this book. I do think about that piece of expertise also. Part of what the book brings is a different perspective. 

Emily Paisner: It's just helpful for our listeners to understand where your expertise lies. For me, it's reassuring, as I read this book to feel really confident in the data that you were sharing. You're a working mom of two, your husband also is a professor as well. What's been your personal experience, managing work and family? What's been the hardest part? What's been the most rewarding part? 

Oster: The most rewarding part is really at the end of the day when we go home, when I go home to my kids, we all have things we can talk about, and I really love my job. It's very nice to get to share that with them. The hardest part is managing the logistics and thinking about what do our kids need at different stages, and actually, in some ways, although I thought that would get much easier as they have aged, it's not gotten easier. 

Emily Paisner: Couldn't agree more. 

Oster: Probably because I feel like when they were little, I was really substitutable with other people in a way that is less so now. When my son was an infant, we had this really spectacular nanny, many spectacular nannies. We had this nanny and she was just like, it was so clear that I could not have substituted for her. He liked to be held when he slept, and she would just hold him when he sleeps. I was always trying to put him down and run out of the room to get something done. She's like, "Oh, I love sitting in there." That's so great. Now I feel like I'm bringing something to my parenting that other people can't. I've actually started thinking about how can I actually spend a little bit more time with them now than I even did before? I find that surprising and thinking about how to manage it while I'm trying to also have a career, that's hard. 

Emily Paisner: What's the best advice that you've ever been given as a parent that you could share with our listeners? 

Oster: Tell the story about when my daughter was two and we were going on a vacation. We were going to this place and we'd been there before, and I knew that it had a lot of bees, and she had never been stung. I got this thing that happens when you're a parent where you just get obsessed with something that is very low probability. I just was obsessed with the idea that she would be stung by a bee and what were we going to do about that. I brought to our pediatrician this whole package of neurosis. I was like, "We're going to his place, she might get stung by a bee. The place is isolated. What if it turns out to be allergic?" 

Then I had some solutions, of course, like maybe we can bring an epi pen, maybe we should test her for the bee thing, what do you think? We had this really wonderful pediatrician and she just looked at me and she's quiet and nodded. She was like, “I would just try not to think about that.” Of course, I was like, you know then I'm ashamed and it's "All right, thank you very much." Then later she was stung by a bee at a different location and she was fine. It was in that moment you realize you can't spend your life obsessing about everything. Bees, mittens, all this kind of stuff that sometimes you have to just say like, "I'm just going to try and think about this, try to focus on the stuff that's important." 

Emily Paisner: Well, Emily, as I said earlier, I'm a huge fan of your work and so really appreciate everything that you're doing to help all of us parents out there. Thank you so much for being here. 

Oster: Thank you for having me. It was great fun. 

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time. 

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care at Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.