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Data-driven parenting: 13 tips from Professor Emily Oster

Daily life can be full of worry for parents. From the time you learn you are pregnant there are so many questions - how much is too much coffee, should you swaddle your newborn, how much screen time should you allow?

There’s so much advice from doctors, family, friends, gimmicky books, the internet and sometimes even complete strangers that often you don’t know what to believe and what to act upon.

Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University in the US has written Cribsheet, a data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting.

After combing through hundreds of studies on parenting issues for her book, she gave BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour her key pieces of advice for parents.

1. Breastfeeding is not the panacea some might think

"There is data to support that nursing improves the short-term health of your baby in a few specific ways (fewer allergic rashes, intestinal disorders and ear infections), but the data is not there on its long-term benefits (breastfed kids are not smarter, or necessarily have lower risks of obesity, cancer, diabetes)."

"However, breastfeeding does lower the risk of certain breast cancers in the mother. Across a wide variety of studies and locations, there seems to be a relationship, and a sizable one. Perhaps a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer."

2. You can have alcohol while breastfeeding

"When you drink, the alcohol level in your milk is about the same as your blood alcohol level", says Emily Oster following her analysis of hundreds of parenting studies.

"The baby consumes the milk, not the alcohol directly, so the level of alcohol they are exposed to is extremely low."

"While it’s never advisable to drink heavily, there’s no need to 'pump and dump' after a glass of wine or beer."

"If you want to be super, super cautious and not expose your baby to alcohol at all, you can have a drink, but you need to wait for two hours afterwards to let the alcohol metabolize before breastfeeding. For two drinks, that increases to four hours."

3. Take your antidepressants if prescribed

According to Emily Oster, "while all antidepressants are secreted in breast milk, there is little evidence of negative impacts on the baby. Postpartum depression is serious, and treatment is important."

You should always consult your own GP with any health concerns.

4. The benefits to room sharing phase out in the first few months

"The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants be in their parent’s room through at least the first six months, and ideally the first year of life, as a guard against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But the benefits to room sharing phase out in the first few months."

"If you want to share a room with your child, by all means, do. And perhaps the data warrants a mild recommendation in favor of very early room sharing. But to tell people they need to keep their child in their room for a year, sacrificing both short and long-​­term sleep success for all involved with no clear benefit in the process, may not be a good policy."

5. It is really risky for babies to sleep on a sofa with an adult

"Across virtually all studies of sleep location, the one thing that jumps out: When babies sleep-share a sofa with an adult, death rates are 20 to 60 times higher than the baseline risk. Don’t do it."

6. Should you swaddle? Yes

"Swaddling has been shown to reduce crying and improve sleep in the early months."

"It is important to swaddle in a way that allows the baby to move its legs and hips."

7. There’s no set waiting period for resuming sex after giving birth

"The commonly accepted rule is no sex until six weeks postpartum, after you have had a check-up with your doctor. This is so often cited, one assumes it is evidence-​­based."

"In fact, this is completely fabricated. There is no set waiting period for resuming sex after giving birth. Physically, if you have had tearing, it is important to wait until the perineum is healed. Your doctor will check this at your first postpartum check‑up (which is, in fact, around six weeks), but you may well be able to tell if you’ve healed before that."

8. Vaccinations: Do it!

"Childhood vaccination is safe and it prevents disease, in your children and others."

9. Cry-it-out sleep training works

Following her analysis of hundreds of parenting studies, Emily Oster concludes that, "these methods are effective, improve parent mental health and are not damaging to your child. Do not feel guilty about it!"

"Sleep training can also be successful at reducing maternal depression. Sleep ​­training methods consistently improve parental mental health; this includes less depression, higher marital satisfaction, and lower parenting stress."

10. To stay at home or not to stay?

"Babies benefit from their mothers taking some maternity leave. But there is little evidence suggesting that having a stay‑at‑home parent has either good or bad consequences for children."

11. Kids in day care are not less attached to their mothers

"Quality of parenting matters for this, but day ​­care time makes no difference [to attachment]."

12. Children under two years old cannot learn much from TV

"Children ages three to five, however, can learn from TV, including vocabulary and so on from programmes like Sesame Street."

"TV watching does not affect test scores. The best evidence suggests that TV watching in particular, even ex­posure at very young ages, does not affect test scores. But the data is just not yet there on smart devices and screen time."

13. Interactive reading with your child is best

"Rather than just reading a book to your kids, ask open-​­ended questions: 'Where do you think the bird’s mother is?' 'How do you think the Cat in the Hat is feeling now?'"

The Woman's Hour parenting podcast is released every Wednesday.

You can listen to the podcast here or you can download it on the BBC Sounds app.