When I was little I sucked my thumb. One day my grandmother told me that if I kept it up my thumb would become pointy.
I asked my mom about it later, and she told me that grandma’s warning was ridiculous. But I stopped sucking my thumb anyway because, you know, just in case.
Many years later, after I became a mother myself, I consumed whatever information I could find about parenting. Determined to be exquisitely well informed and therefore able to make the best decisions, I devoured books, read studies, observed other moms and arrived at pediatrician visits with long lists of questions.
And I still got so much wrong. Not grandma’s pointy-thumb theory wrong, but I undoubtedly made many mistakes in spite of — or even because of — my efforts to educate myself on whatever parenting dogma was being floated at the time.
With the virtue of hindsight, I realize now that part of my problem was that I took every piece of information and prevailing belief far too seriously. I recall becoming so anxious and guilt-ridden after a medical condition prevented me from breast-feeding that a doctor sternly warned me that my stress could hurt my baby far more than being bottle-fed.
How helpful it would have been if I’d had access to the sensible and even-handed new book by Brown University economist Emily Oster, “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool.”
Oster had already garnered a huge following with her previous book, “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know.” Its popularity was driven by the author’s unique approach to the overwhelming amount of advice that pregnant women receive.
Using her analytical skills and economist’s discipline to examine mountains of data, she cut through many of the over-hyped claims and conflicting research findings that are bound to confuse and mislead expectant moms.
Now, with her new book, she uses the same approach to clear up what we actually know, and don’t know, about the parenting of very young children.
A good deal of the confusion, Oster tells us, is due to the widely varying quality of research. Indeed, even the best designed studies can produce somewhat muddled results. And some parenting issues — having to do with technology, for example — are so recent that there simply isn’t enough long-term data to produce anything approximating conclusive results.
But with some aspects of early childhood, there is a significant amount of data. And in many cases, Oster finds, the accepted beliefs regarding the rearing of young children are exaggerated — some practices are neither as good or bad as we think.
Given my history, I was relieved to learn that Oster’s fine-tooth examination led her to conclude that both the benefits of breastfeeding and any detrimental effects of not breastfeeding are overstated, and most of the benefits that are derived are short term. At least, this is what can be concluded from the research so far; further study might provide greater clarity.
The book also devotes significant space to another fraught topic: sleep.
Some information about sleeping is relatively clear. For example, it’s better to have infants sleep on their backs and without soft objects such as pillows and stuffed toys.
But other subjects, such as sleep training and whether or not to have a baby share a bed with parents, are highly controversial.
Some parents wouldn’t dream of letting their tiny baby sleep in the same bed with them, for fear of injuring the infant. Others are attracted to such sleeping arrangements for a variety of reasons — because it’s convenient, or because they believe co-sleeping promotes closeness.
Oster finds evidence to suggest that co-sleeping with infants does carry some risk, particularly if the parents drink alcohol or smoke. But she also points out that parenthood is one giant exercise in risk assessment. We put our kids in cars all the time, for instance, because we determine that the benefits of driving outweigh the chances of being in an accident.
Parents these days are terribly judge-y, and we also tend to judge ourselves based on our perceived successes and failures. All families are different, Oster writes, and many decisions come down to personal preference, as they should.
One big exception is vaccinations. On this subject, she writes, the scientific consensus is “extremely clear: vaccines are safe and effective.” They are one of the greatest public health triumphs, and they’ve saved millions of lives.
This assessment is particularly relevant now, at a time when the antivaccination movement continues to grow, spurred on by reams of junk science widely available on the internet. This has led to declining vaccination rates in some communities and to measles outbreaks in parts of the U.S. and worldwide.
Oster takes on many other topics — including working mothers, television-watching and discipline — treating the available research to the same rigorous analysis.
While I am long past personally benefiting from the information she presents, I found her approach — pairing a scholar’s keen eye with a level-headed understanding of the way parents make choices — both refreshing and useful. With so many parenting theories driving us all a bit batty, this is the type of book that we need to help calm things down.
Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.