Photo: Dana Smith

One of the most consistent pieces of advice I’ve gotten while pregnant (I’m writing this now three weeks from my due date, hello) was to read Emily Oster’s 2013 book, Expecting Better. In it, Oster applies her training as a health economist to the science of pregnancy and childbirth, juxtaposing conventional medical advice with interpretation. Not all of Oster’s conclusions align with standard medical advice — her conclusion that light drinking is safe is notably controversial — but all come from analysis of the available data.

In her new book, Cribsheet, Oster brings her hybrid methodology to bear on early parenthood, from the first moments after delivery to preschool, helping readers think through decisions including breastfeeding, sleep, screentime, and potty-training. There are fewer firm answers in Cribsheet than in Expecting Better, but what’s consistent is Oster’s style, built on the idea of a cost-benefit assessment of choices in which there’s no right answer for everyone. I spoke to her about how parenting has changed for millennials, how her personal life influences her writing, and how to make good decisions without copious data. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Do you think that, for this generation of parents, it’s harder or easier to factor our own wellbeing into decision-making? I can’t quite tell if millennials are breaking free of old patterns of misery and choicelessness, or if there’s more pressure now to overachieve in pregnancy.
It’s hard to answer those questions sometimes because it’s hard for us to ask, “What was it like to be pregnant [back then]?” I’m not sure that our parents even remember. But I do think that there has been an increased focus on doing this right, and people feeling like they have to accomplish this in a way. Maybe as people are having fewer kids there’s more of what economists would call a quantity/quality trade-off. I think it also probably intersects to some extent with the desire to better yourself, to optimize everything — wear your Fitbit and track your sleep. So then parenthood is another part of your life where there’s a way to do it right or not.

Where were you in your parenting life when you started…