NEW YORK — Emily Oster isn't a baby doctor. She's an economist and a mom who wanted to know more about all those rules handed down to women after the pregnancy stick goes pink.
Only two cups of coffee a day! No alcohol. Beware deli meats.
Being pregnant, she said, felt a lot like being a child, so she decided to take a deep dive into research covering everything from wine and weight gain to prenatal testing and epidurals. What she found was some of the mainstays of pregnancy advice are based on inconclusive or downright faulty science.
To this data-cruncher, an associate professor in the University of Chicago's business school, those magical nine months became a question of correlation and causation.
Some of her conclusions? Weight gain during pregnancy is less important than a woman's starting weight and not gaining enough may be more harmful. Light drinking is fine (up to two glasses of wine a week in the first trimester and up to a glass a day in the second and third trimesters). And much of the evidence supports having three to four cups of coffee daily, which made Oster very, very happy.
There's more, of course, and not all of it runs counter to standard medical advice. And she happily reports in "Expecting Better," her book corralling all the research for other women to share, that her 2-year-old daughter, Penelope, is healthy and happy.
The book, from Penguin Press, is out this week. A conversation with Oster:
AP: Have you written the "Freakonomics" of pregnancy?
Oster: I think it's right that it feels a little bit like 'Freakonomics' because Steve (Levitt) and I are both economists, but the goal here was really to write down an approach that was right for me. The approach being thinking carefully through all of these decisions, getting the best data that you can and then structuring the decision in a way that takes into account your personal preferences, tolerance for risk and all the kinds of things that we should be thinking about every day.
AP: Do you anticipate blowback from women and doctors because you're an economist and not a medical professional who helps manage pregnancies?
Oster: For sure but I certainly do not envision women reading this book and saying, 'Oh, like, I can deliver my own baby now, right?' I think that there's a real sense in which pregnancy should be something that you do with your doctor, but I think that for a lot of women the time you have with your doctors is limited and it can be difficult to get all of the answers to your questions.
AP: Are most pregnant women ill-informed? Are doctors and other pregnancy professionals lax in keeping up to date on research that might lead to more specific recommendations?
Oster: I think we see sometimes where practice lags behind recommendations. Not all practitioners, obviously. As an example, in the case of prenatal testing, even though more recent recommendations don't favor the 35-year-old cutoff as much, that's still a highly practiced thing, so I think there's a sense in which there is some slow creep of knowledge.