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An economist’s analysis of data on parenting, from breastfeeding to co-sleeping

Raising a child is complicated and potentially confusing, with conflicting advice available everywhere a parent turns. Economist Emily Oster, a mother of two, dug into the data to help other parents make informed choices about managing their little ones -- and found some surprising results that challenge conventional parenting wisdom. Business and economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Raising a child is complicated and it can be confusing, with advice available just about everywhere you turn. So, one economist and mother actually dug into the data to help parents make informed choices about raising their little ones.

    Business and economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story. It's part of our series, "Making Sense."

  • Woman:

    We've got to go to swim.

  • Paul Solman:

    Raising kids, as every parent knows, is a constant conundrum.

    Punish. No, be patient.

    The advice out there is more abundant than ever.

    But each parenting tip seems to get turned on its head by the next one.

    How many of you have been conflicted about — seriously conflicted– about information you've gotten about raising your kids?

    Every single one.

  • Emily Oster:

    People will just come up to you on the street and tell you ways that you're doing it wrong.

  • Paul Solman:

    Health economist Emily Oster has taken a more scientific approach. Once she became pregnant, she began applying her statistical skills to the data. The result was the bestseller, "Expecting Better." Now a mom of two, in the book "Cribsheet," she applies her economics training to everything from breastfeeding to discipline, to help parents make data-driven choices.

    What's an economist doing studying this?

  • Emily Oster:

    The skills that we have in data analysis are just really crucial. So, to give an example, something like breastfeeding. So, we're interested in the impacts of breastfeeding on, say, kids' IQ.

  • Paul Solman:

    And there is evidence, or supposedly evidence, to suggest that if you breastfeed, your kids will have a higher IQ.

  • Emily Oster:

    Yes. The issue with basically all of those studies is that the choice of breastfeeding is not something people make randomly, on a whim. It's a — it's a considered choice, and it happens that it also differs a lot across groups. So, more educated moms, richer moms, married moms, you know, people who are broadly what we'd say higher socioeconomic status, are more likely to breastfeed.

    So, separating the impact of breastfeeding on IQ from the impact of all of the other differences on IQ is really hard.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Oster looked at a study of siblings in which the same mother breastfed one baby but did not breastfeed the other. It showed no statistical difference in IQ.

  • Emily Oster:

    I try to go through all of the studies, to pick out the ones that I think are most convincing and are giving us something that is closest to a causal relationship.

  • Paul Solman:

    But one of the most robust findings around breastfeeding is reducing the mother's risk of breast cancer.

  • Emily Oster:

    Yes. There are some effects on the baby that do seem to be supported in the data. Reductions in gastrointestinal problems in the first year, while the baby is being breastfed. Reductions in ear infection, reduction in rashes, again, all kind in the beginning. And then there's actually a pretty sizable effect on breast cancer risk for the moms.

    On the flip side, many of the claims that people make about the long-term health effects of breast-feeding for infants, like reductions in obesity later in life, reductions in other diseases later in life, improvements in IQ, those don't seem to be supported in the — in the best data.

  • Paul Solman:

    Comedian Amy Schumer became a fan after reading "Expecting Better," and interviewed Oster on her salty podcast, "3 Girls, 1 Keith":

  • Amy Schumer:

    I think what everyone is most interested in, like, pregnant women, they're like, can I drink?

  • Emily Oster:

    You know, you shouldn't have a lot. Like one small glass a day in the second and third trimester.

  • Amy Schumer:

    Melon-flavored mad dog?

  • Emily Oster:

    No, definitely not.

  • Paul Solman:

    Oster's mild drinking "OK" was actually denounced by doctors, who say no amount of alcohol is safe while pregnant. And now, "Cribsheet" has been criticized by the American Academy of Pediatrics for underselling breastfeeding.

  • Emily Oster:

    But I haven't actually been able to get them to engage on discussing the merits of the evidence. You know, I'm definitely not a doctor, but I also think that we can all read the evidence together and it would be great to have those discussions.

  • Paul Solman:

    Oster doesn't shy away from other charged topics, like sleep and the decision to skip the crib and co-sleep in the same bed.

  • Emily Oster:

    You know, on the one hand, you'll have people telling you, like, this is the natural way to sleep. This is how everybody has slept for millions of years.

  • Paul Solman:

    Family bed.

  • Emily Oster:

    That's how your kids will be attached.

  • Paul Solman:

    Right.

  • Emily Oster:

    And also it's easier, and everyone will get more sleep and it's great.

    And then you have on the other side sort of sometimes very, very harsh rhetoric around you shouldn't do this. So, there was an anti-co-sleeping ad campaign, which showed pictures of babies in a bed with a giant knife.

  • Paul Solman:

    A knife because a kid would get smothered?

  • Emily Oster:

    Yes. I think that it's dangerous, like a knife would be.

    When I dug into the data, I think that on the one hand, it's — it does show that the safest way to sleep is not with your baby in your bed, that there are some risks to co-sleeping. On the other hand, if you do this and sort of, as safely as possible, which means in a bed with parents who are not smoking or drinking or that has relatively few covers, there probably is some excess risk, but it's — it's small. It's, you know, on the scale of the kinds of risks that you're taking all the time, by putting your kid in a car.

  • Paul Solman:

    Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend bed-sharing.

    Sleep training, or letting your baby cry it out is another fraught subject.

    Oster found it so tough, she had to let her husband take charge.

  • Emily Oster:

    I just left the house. Jesse just did it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Really?

  • Emily Oster:

    Yes, I left.

  • Paul Solman:

    Where'd you go?

  • Emily Oster:

    The bar down the street.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sleep training is a bear for parents. And don't babies feel abandoned when left to cry? Mightn't that prevent them from bonding?

    Not according to the data, says Oster.

  • Emily Oster:

    Kids, right after they sleep train, they will sleep better. And the parents will sleep better also, and so when we look at, you know, randomized evaluations that study the impacts of sleep training on parental satisfaction or maternal depression, we actually see pretty big effects.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes, one thing you emphasize in breastfeeding and in sleep training is the effect on the mother.

  • Emily Oster:

    We've sometimes gotten into a place where it seems like we're saying, anything you could do that even anyone has ever suggested could have any tiny good effects on the baby, you should do that, even if it is infinitely costly for the family.

  • Paul Solman:

    Economist Oster says most parenting decisions boil down not to right against wrong, but costs against benefits, comprehensively weighed, and including personal preferences.

  • Emily Oster:

    Particularly the question of, like, stay at home mom versus working mom sometimes feels like the kind of crux of the — of the mommy wars. My read is that the best data suggests it does not matter for the kid whether you work or not.

    And so, I say, like, OK, here are some things you can think about in a decision, like what is the best thing for the kid? What is going to work logistically for your family? And also, what do you want?

    I decide to work not because I have to, but because I think that's what works for my family.

  • Paul Solman:

    And after a while, taking care of a kid —

  • Emily Oster:

    Would not be for me. I love being with my kids, but you know, the marginal utility is diminishing. You know, the first hour is great, the second hour is pretty good. By, like, hour four, I'm ready to go to work.

    That's hard for people to say. Like, somehow as a parent, there's a sense that you should be like, oh, I just my dream is to spend every moment with my kid.

    That's not my dream. I love my kids. They're the best. But my dream is not to spend every minute with them.

  • Paul Solman:

    But for lots of parents, I would say probably the majority of working women, it's not so much that they like the job. Economically, they have to.

  • Emily Oster:

    Yes. If you have more money, more resources, you can make more different choices about parenting, we have sort of gotten into a place where sometimes we're arguing about, you know, who's the best kind of parent, around these pretty minor things that don't matter. And I worry that it distracts us from thinking about, how can we make better policy for poor families in the U.S.?

  • Paul Solman:

    Like paid family leave, for example.

  • Emily Oster:

    It's very clear that there are benefits, including reductions in infant mortality, from having paid parental leave, that is not accessible to a lot of people in the U.S.

  • Paul Solman:

    In the end, by mining the data and making her results broadly accessible, economist/mom Emily Oster has one overriding objective — to make parenting just a bit less stressful than it inevitably is.

    For the "PBS NewsHour", this is business and economics correspondent, parent and grandparent, Paul Solman, in Providence, Rhode Island.

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