An article in the Wall Street Journal is getting attention from anyone who is or has ever been pregnant. The author, Emily Oster, is a mother, economist, and the author of the new book, “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know”.
Her argument–after using her training to parse literally every study known to pregnant womankind–is that health guidelines during pregnancy tend to be vague at best but alarmist and misleading at worst.
Pregnant women are high-fiving over this article, which states very clearly that coffee, a few glasses of wine, ham sandwiches, and solid weight gain are all fine during pregnancy. In a nutshell:
“In the end, I concluded that I should be more worried about gaining too little weight than too much.”
“I concluded that avoiding queso fresco and deli turkey was a good idea, but in the end I didn’t feel that it made sense even to exclude other deli meats. My best guess was that avoiding sliced ham would lower my risk of listeria from 1 in 8,333 to 1 in 8,255.”
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that light drinking is fine. Of course, this is sensitive to timing. Both the data and the science suggest that the speed of drinking, and whether you are eating at the same time, matters. It isn’t that complicated: Drink like a European adult, not like a fraternity brother.”
“I ultimately decided that the weight of the evidence didn’t support limiting my consumption very much. I decided to continue drinking my three to four cups a day.”
I did this research when I co-wrote the pregnancy and baby guide From The Hips with Rebecca Odes nearly ten years ago. We reported similar conclusions. For example, we found that research supports drinking coffee while pregnant so long as you don’t exceed–get this– 5 cups a day. Lordy.
Rebecca and I nevertheless made different choices about what to swallow, chew, breathe, and rub on our bodies. But both of us felt confident that our choices were informed AND intuitive.
For example, I ate deli meats, but only when I intuited that the establishment selling the sandwich wasn’t totally disgusting. Not very scientific, I know. But there were sandwiches I ate. And sandwiches I turned away. Informed intuition.
As for alcohol: I’ve written about this many, many times. Studies do show reassuring information about mild to moderate drinking during pregnancy, but since the timing and metabolizing of alcohol are not always predictable variables, many women decide to just not drink at all.
I drank during my pregnancies. The research was reassuring. But I didn’t drink much. Part of the goal of drinking is to feel the effects, no? And the moment I felt actually affected by alcohol I felt kind of gross. So it all seemed a little useless.
I had lots of sips and maybe a small glass here and there with a full meal.
But here’s the thing. Most of the news we get during pregnancy is alarmist. Believe me, I have worked in this business long enough—no one will click on your article unless you tell them their baby is at risk of something. Of course, in the fine print you’ll read whatever the scary, threatening thing is (these days it’s likely causing autism, because what doesn’t?) has only been tested on twelve mice and “more research is needed.” But they got you to click through!
In the journalism biz, they call this “scare and solve.” Brutal.
All this can get you so ratcheted up that you can’t think straight. So you try to follow all the rules and adequately freak out over everything and then people tell you you’re an overanxious, helicopter parent in-the-making. It’s a trap!
I think it’s important to realize a few things:
1. Starting in pregnancy, approaching childbirth, and all throughout parenthood you will get alarmist advice about pretty much everything except for drowning. So take a deep breath. But watch the kids by the pool.
2. The leading causes of death in pregnancy are not ham sandwiches and sushi. It’s murder and suicide with accidents somewhere up in there. So wear a seat belt, end abusive relationships, and take care of your emotional needs.
3. When you go online to research something, look at consumer-oriented websites. Message boards can be a smörgåsbord of horror stories. Advocacy sites are written with the intention of freaking people out so that they can change public opinion on a mass level or to raise money.
4. Find a doctor (or midwife) who talks to you like you have a brain.
5. Realize that we don’t have PERFECT, CONCLUSIVE data about a lot of issues related to pregnancy and birth. We all bow down to “what the science says,” but honestly these days I feel like that statement has a lost a little of its mojo. I read it in every article, every day. Science seems to support whatever anyone wants to say. So, again, find a doctor (or childbirth educator or book author) who says things like, “Honestly, we don’t really know” from time to time.
This is not just being humble, sometimes it’s the only true “evidence-based” advice.
Read Emily Oster’s great article here.
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