June 27, 2019

Parenting by the Numbers

“Pregnancy! A time of wonder and anticipation. And paranoia. First comes the visit to your doctor, where you receive the (hopefully) happy news. Then comes the Talk, which goes something like: “Remember to take it easy for the next nine months. Pamper yourself. Get lots of sleep. And don’t eat any deli meats, or you could murder your baby.”

O.K., this might not be exactly what the doctor says, but it’s what many women hear. Daily life takes on a frightening new dimension. Is there toxoplasmosis on the cat’s butt? Is the hair salon full of poisonous fumes? Complicating things is the gap between the official recommendations and what people actually do. The handout says stick to “one small cup” of coffee and stay away from alcohol. But we all know that the coffee thing is B.S., and that it’s perfectly fine to have a glass of wine, because . . . they do it in France, right? What about that trending Times article, “Eating Nuts During Pregnancy Tied to Brain Benefits in Baby”? Or the fact that Kourtney Kardashian avoided microwaves after she had a baby?

Navigating this gantlet, when I was pregnant, I called a friend who had recently given birth. She cut me off, saying, “There’s a book you need to read.” The book was by Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who studies health care. In her day job, she pores over medical journals and government data sets for insights into how we treat diseases such as Huntington’s, diabetes, and H.I.V./aids. In 2010, Oster got pregnant. Confronted with the usual mixed messages—her doctor told her that a glass of wine was “probably O.K.”—she went home, logged in to PubMed, a database of medical literature, and downloaded every study on alcohol and caffeine going back to the nineteen-eighties. She then spent several days performing a personal meta-analysis: evaluating the merits of the studies, throwing out the weak ones, and making an assessment of the risks. (Her conclusion: a glass of wine a day in the second or third trimester wasn’t a problem, and she could keep drinking coffee guilt-free.)”

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