Parenting books can be a treasure trove of good advice and information. Problem is, we’re so busy parenting that we seldom have time to read them! To help out, we thought we’d start a little ABBY&FINN book club - we read a parenting book for you and give you the CliffsNotes version. (Ok, maybe it’s a little less book-clubby and a little more how-some-teenagers-made-it-through-Sophomore-English, but you get the idea.) You get the book’s info boiled down for you. If that’s all you want, then there you go! And if it sounds like a topic you’d be into learning more about, follow up with reading the book yourself for greater detail.
Ever obsessed over a parenting decision? You know, like the baby refuses to settle down when you put her in her crib and the only way anyone in the house gets a wink of sleep is if you all co-sleep? But you’ve heard it’s unsafe to co-sleep. Or, you’ve tried to breastfeed for a while and it hurts so much and the latch isn’t quite right so your baby ends up hungry and you feel defeated so you’re wondering if you should switch to formula? But you’ve read somewhere that babies who are exclusively breastfed have higher IQs. Or, you worry about letting your toddler watch a television show for 21 precious minutes so you can catch your breath, finish your work project, or unload the dishwasher? But your friend online says that screen use before the age of two leads to attention problems in older children. Ugh. What’s a parent to do?
All moms and dads have to face decisions like this daily. Naturally, there are some loud opinions you’re going to hear from all directions on every parenting choice. These opinions come from friends, family, social media, clickbait, news stories, and sometimes even the random lady in the grocery store parking lot. It’s stressful to sift through information to decide what matters in your decision making process. (Especially when that information is conflicting and the outcomes of a choice can be overstated.) That’s where Emily Oster’s Cribsheet comes in. Described as “a data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting, from birth to preschool”, Oster sifts through the data, information, and conventional wisdom about some of the most fraught parenting decisions we make during those early years. Honestly, you had me at ‘more relaxed’.
So imagine I say to you, “Hey, I’ve got a nearly 300 page book about parenting data for you to read. And it’s got a killer notes section just in case you want to pull the original study for further reading.” Hard pass, right? But wait! I know that description sounds super-duper dry (though it is accurate!) but this book is as funny and relatable as it is research-based. I promise it doesn’t read like a bar graph giving a PowerPoint about a pie chart. It reads like you’re talking to a non-judgmental, supportive, friend. A very very smart, non-judgmental, supportive friend, that is. Basically, what Oster does is acknowledge the difficulty in making decisions a parent faces in those first three years. She looks at the most common topics we all fret and obsess over (you know, the easy stuff like breast or formula feeding, sleep training, potty training, discipline, etc.) and compiles studies and research about those topics to distill what the data really says. And here’s your PSA for the day: Despite everything your mother, mother-in-law, or over-posting friend online has told you (perhaps rather loudly or emphatically), the research and data is not necessarily definitive one way or the other on many issues and the costs or benefits of a choice can be overstated.
As parents, we all have the same objective data swirling around. But the decisions we make based on that data are our own. And those decisions may look different compared to decisions others make. But if we never take comfort by finding security in the choices we’ve made for our kiddos, how can we relax and actually get down to the business of parenting? The best thing to do as a parent is gather good information, make the best decision for you and your family based on that information and your preferences, and move onto the next decision. Oster notes that you should think of Cribsheet as a framework in decision making. The goal of the book is not to disprove advice, but rather to explain the why (or why not) behind the advice.
Cribsheet looks at topics covering the first three years of parenting. There is no shortage of ideas about what is the right way to do things and lucky for us, there is no shortage of people happy to loudly tell us the right way! Cribsheet can guide you in quieting some of the unnecessary noise by following a structured approach to decision making. (This is where you think of the book in terms of being a framework as well as a resource.) The book objectively gathers information through research studies. Oster points out what the collated data says and notes any risks or benefits to each side of an issue. And, importantly, she delineates how big the costs or benefits are. That is, some risks can sound terribly frightening. But if you are more likely to be bitten by a shark while being struck by lightning while winning PowerBall all at the same time…well, then does the risky outcome really need to be a major factor in your decision-making process? (Remember, we take risks every day - driving a car, turning on the stove, riding a bike, etc - because we’ve determined the benefit greatly outweighs the potential for a negative outcome.)
Oster also stresses the importance of incorporating a parent’s preferences into the decision-making process. For instance, even though the objective data points to some health benefits early on for baby, if breastfeeding and pumping become negatively stressful to the mom as she returns to work outside the home, then that preference should carry weight in the decision. These family preferences are an important step that parents can sometimes push aside due to perceived or real outside judgement as well as internal feelings of guilt.
Oster notes that oftentimes, there is no one best option for all. When factual evidence is joined with personal preference, the best outcome for each family may look a little different. She additionally makes the point that when looking at data, we need to assess the strength of the study and focus on causal effects of choices, not just associations. (For instance, if a child who co-sleeps with his parents differs from a child who sleeps in his own room, is it actually the co-sleeping that matters or a confluence of various factors?)
The book is broken down into four sections that follow the chronology of the baby:
In The Beginning - This section starts in the delivery room with looking at some medical issues - like delayed cord clamping, circumcision, blood and hearing tests, etc. - and urges you to make as many of these decisions ahead of time because right after the baby’s born is just a hard time to think on the fly. (Hello? You just had a baby come out of your body.) Information then turns to once baby is home with topics like swaddling, colic, germ exposure, and what happens with mom’s body in terms of physical and emotional recovery.
The First Year - This section turns to those major decisions around feeding choices, sleep training options, vaccinations, and parents returning to work along with the subsequent daycare vs nanny debate.
From Baby to Toddler - These chapters examine walking and talking milestones and ranges, a basic discussion of TV and toddlers, potty training, discipline including information on spanking, and early education with a brief mention of preschool programs.
The Home Front - The final sections look at politics within the family and conflicts and stress that may arise between parenting partners, expanding a family (number of children and age spacing), and the idea of letting go instead of worrying about every possible scenario that may come up.
One of the best parts of the book (especially for those over-exhausted and over-stressed parents who are short on time and doze off when they open a book) is that at the end of each section, there is a distilled “The Bottom Line” textbox with bulleted points summarizing the findings. For instance, “Early exposure to allergens reduces incidences of food allergies” and “Vitamin D supplementation is reasonable, but don’t freak out about missing a day here and there.” If you find yourself struggling to make it through the whole book, that little textbox may be enough piece of mind to help guide you to a decision you’ve been stressing over.
Well, full disclosure: I am a HUGE Emily Oster fangirl. (Is that a thing? Just like a Swiftie or a member of the Beyhive? I mean, my girl Em is on par with Beyonce, right?) I follow her research and writing and appreciate her down-to-earth, evidence-based assessment of scientific studies that I would never seek out to read on my own. I find her ability to take data and objectively interpret it so it’s accessible for all of us hugely beneficial as a parent. And she does it while incorporating wit and personal anecdotes! Her writing is entertaining and informative.
The book also has a great index. (Do people rave about book indices?!?) But it is so thorough and useful. It lists the topics discussed and you can easily find whatever you may be searching for intel about. I could see this book being used not necessarily as a one-and-done read, but more as a resource you turn to during your baby’s first few years.
And while I want a parenting book that explicitly shouts THIS IS THE RIGHT CHOICE, I just don’t think one of those exists. (Or if it does, it’s probably a bit wrong.) Cribsheet does a good job of noting that there is a lot of grey in all of those important decisions we make for our children and ourselves as their parents. The best decision for one family may not be the best decision for yours. But, both choices are “right”. (Obvs, there are some decisions that do have a clear right or wrong based on data like don’t let your baby inhale secondhand smoke and you should use a carseat, but lots of other choices fall more along a spectrum.) The book served as a great reminder that with good research and weighing our own parental preferences - which have value in the decision-making process - we can feel confident in making the best choices for our kiddos. The underscored message is that when we start with good, objective data, we can be secure in our decisions and let other parents be secure in theirs. No need to judge. We all want to make the best choices for our kiddos and ourselves, and there will be times that simply trusting we are doing our best with good data is all we can do.