‘Expecting Better’: Is Emily Oster the Parenting Guru of a New Generation?


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expecting better emily roster"
expecting better emily roster
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider

Confession: I’m an information hoarder by nature, and the idea of “winging it” gives me stress hives. So, when I got pregnant, I convinced myself that if I could just order and read every parenting book on Amazon, I’d have a smooth pregnancy, my baby would sleep through the night, and everything would be a breeze.

And so, I tried. But as the stack of parenting books on my nightstand grew, so did my anxiety. Each book I opened made me feel more overwhelmed because they all seemed to claim, “This is the one right way to do things, and if you don’t, well, then, good luck…” Enter Emily Oster, an author and Harvard-educated economist whose expertise lies in statistical methods—not exactly the typical bedtime reading for exhausted moms. Yet she’s become a kind of personal savior for me and many other moms of my generation thanks to her mission of arming parents with the data they need to make confident childrearing decisions.

expecting better emily oster
Emily Oster
Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong–and What You Really Need to Know
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Highlights of ‘Expecting Better’

Oster wrote Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know during her own pregnancy when she became frustrated by the lack of evidence-based advice she was receiving. What started as her own personal research turned into what just might be the new bible of modern parenting.

Expecting Better tackles the so-called “rules” of pregnancy, which, Oster points out, are often applied in an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all manner—or are just plain wrong. In each chapter, she dissects a piece of common pregnancy advice with the help of hard data and research. If you’ve got a question about which prenatal screenings are really necessary or whether it’s OK to eat that turkey sandwich, Emily Oster has an answer. And, crucially, she doesn’t just tell us to go ahead and enjoy that glass of wine, she tells us why it’s probably OK.

She also covers the “why” behind the risk of miscarriage at different points in pregnancy, along with information on weight gain, prenatal testing, bed rest, birth plans, and so much more. She does this all with the goals of empowering parents to make the decisions that are right for them and (most importantly!) helping women enjoy more relaxed pregnancies because they feel confident in their decisions. And somehow, she manages to accomplish this in a witty and relatable style that makes you want to keep reading.

Key ‘Expecting Better’ Pregnancy Takeaways

Editor’s Note: Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.

As a mother of two, Oster understands first-hand the questions women wrestle with during pregnancy. Here are some of the “hottest” topics she tackles:

How much caffeine can I really have when pregnant?

According to Oster, caffeine is perfectly acceptable in moderation—cue the collective sigh of relief. After reviewing all the evidence, she concludes that enjoying up to two cups of coffee per day poses no adverse effects. Surprisingly, she finds some studies that suggest even three or four cups daily is fine. Additionally, she adeptly navigates the distinction between correlation and causality. For instance, does caffeine directly cause miscarriage rates (causality), or is there merely a positive association (correlation) that may be influenced by other factors? (You can breathe easy because, in the case of caffeine, it appears to be the latter.)

Which foods should I avoid during pregnancy?

Oster starts with a list of 10 common foods that are “off limits” during pregnancy. After looking at them one by one, she concludes that the most worrisome are those that can introduce Listeria or toxoplasmosis. In short, this really only means avoiding the following four things:

  1. Raw/rare meat and poultry (toxoplasmosis)
  2. Unwashed vegetables and fruit (toxoplasmosis)
  3. Queso fresco and other raw milk cheeses (Listeria)
  4. Deli turkey (Listeria)

So while you may want to ask for your burger well done, according to Oster you can at least enjoy some sushi!

Can I drink alcohol when I’m pregnant?

According to Oster, the evidence suggests light drinking during pregnancy isn’t going to harm your baby. In practice, this means:

  • One to two drinks per week in the first trimester
  • Up to one drink per day in the second and third trimesters

She does note that the speed at which you ingest alcohol matters, so stick to sipping (no shots!) Also, heavier drinking, especially in the range of four to five drinks at a time, is harmful and should be avoided.

How do I advocate for myself through pregnancy and childbirth?

Oster and her work have come along at a time when maternal mortality rates are climbing and women face increasing instances of medical gaslighting. And while her writing is undeniably approachable, what truly seems to resonate with women is her commitment to giving us the information we need to assert agency throughout pregnancy. 

Sadly, there are numerous tales of women doubting their own instincts during pregnancy and childbirth because they lacked the knowledge to advocate for themselves. It’s a heartbreaking reality that many only realize the importance of speaking up after the fact. Take Serena Williams’ harrowing experience of having to repeatedly demand life-saving treatment post-C-section—if someone of her stature faced such challenges, where does that leave the rest of us?

Source: Canva

Going Beyond ‘Expecting Better’

The world has no shortage of opinions when it comes to motherhood—and this starts in pregnancy. Random strangers suddenly feel they have permission to touch or comment on our bodies and weigh in on our choices. (I once got a lecture for sipping a mocktail at a bar!) And though we shouldn’t have to defend our choices during pregnancy or motherhood, with Expecting Better in our corner, we’ve got a powerful ally.

Fortunately for us, Oster’s work now goes beyond the questions that arise in pregnancy. Her second book, Crib Sheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, was a lifeline for me in my early years of parenting. And her subsequent book, The Family Firm, addresses the challenges of the early school years—when things really start to get complicated! And out this spring, her book The Unexpected, coauthored with fetal medicine specialist Nathan Fox, MD, addresses pregnancy complications, again arming readers with data and conversation starters to advocate for themselves.

expecting better emily oster
Emily Oster
Expecting Better
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cribsheet emily oster
Emily Oster
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the family firm emily oster
Emily Oster
The Family Firm
Shop now
unexpected emily oster
Emily Oster and Nathan Fox, MD
The Unexpected

available April 30, 2024

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She’s also the founder of the Parent Data initiative and its accompanying newsletter (which I highly recommend), where she distills the latest scientific research into actionable solutions for everyday parenting dilemmas. Whether you have a question about potty training or the CDC’s maternal mortality data, Parent Data will likely have an answer. And while some of the content is behind a paywall, the subscription fee is reasonable and, in my experience, well worth the investment for the peace of mind it affords.

Final Thoughts on ‘Expecting Better’

I realize I may sound like an obsessive Emily Oster fan but with good reason. In a world with so much information coming at us constantly (much of it bad or wrong), for me, reading Expecting Better was the beginning of feeling calmer and more empowered as a parent. Since discovering Oster’s books, I’ve stopped my relentless pursuit of reading every parenting book on the market and made her my first stop when seeking advice. Not only do I feel like a more confident parent, but I’ve also been able to declutter my nightstand—yet another tangible benefit of Emily Oster’s work.