As a genre, parenting books generally don’t give their readers much room to think through what’s best for them and their children—they offer plenty in the way of “how to,” but little in the way of “whether to” or “why to.”
“By not explaining why,” writes Emily Oster in her new book, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, “we remove people’s ability to think about these choices for themselves, with their own preferences playing a role.” Oster is an economist at Brown University, and Cribsheet is her extensive analysis of what research has to say—and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t have to say—about the upsides and downsides of breastfeeding, potty training, and circumcision, among many other issues that come up in the first few years of a child’s life.
In Cribsheet and its predecessor—Expecting Better, Oster’s 2013 book about pregnancy—she describes a decision-making process for parents that’s informed by economic thinking. She makes passing mention of decision trees and “Bayesian priors,” but the process is simple: Gather the available data; estimate the costs and benefits of each potential course of action; factor in your family’s preferences and constraints; decide. Helpfully, Cribsheet takes care of the first and second steps of that process—which can be the hardest for parents—equipping readers with the information to make decisions confidently (and early, in advance of the chaotic, sleep-deprived months that a newborn brings).