Published on 23 Aug 2021

Minor Issues: Practical parenting book a lifeline for those swamped by doubt

Being a first-time parent is terrifying.

Something about the initiation into parenthood causes intelligent adults to disconnect from their brains. People with doctorates and otherwise confident adults are reduced to quivering pools of nerves as soon as they take their first child home from the hospital. 

My wife and I were no different.

The news of becoming pregnant with our elder son, R, took us by surprise. We had married with an understanding that we would not have kids. At the time, we were living in Germany and planning to move to the United States.

Instead of preparing the baby’s room and studying up on the secret arts of parenting, we enjoyed our last months as a couple with weekend getaways, movies and sleeping in till late. We took to heart advice from friends to savour the pre-baby period, which came to an end all too quickly on delivery day.

When our “surprise” arrived, it was like being hit by a car. A complication during the birth resulted in an emergency caesarean section. It felt like we were starting off on the wrong foot, and I wondered if I should have been better prepared – the first of many instances of self-doubt.

As soon as R arrived, the floodgates opened to a swell of well-meaning yet often conflicting advice.

Some advised my wife and me to swaddle the baby so he would sleep more soundly. Others cautioned against swaddling him, warning that this interfered with the development of his movement and joints.

Our parents advised us to let the baby cry without picking him up to comfort him, so that he would not get used to being carried all the time. Contradicting our parents, some friends advised that we should not let the baby cry because he would feel unloved and it could result in aggressive behaviour later in life.

The equivocal list of advice goes on, encompassing areas such as when to bathe the baby, when to cut his hair and nails and much more. For every piece of advice, there was usually an equal and opposite piece of advice, which only resulted in more confusion and self-doubt for us.

To clear up the confusion, we tried to read whatever books we could lay our hands on. This was Germany in the early 2000s, where speciality English books were not readily available, and Amazon had not yet become the global retail powerhouse that it is today.

Restful sleep was a luxury that we had little of. R was a colicky and hungry baby. He would wake up every 90 minutes during the first few weeks after coming home from the hospital. At our lowest point, baby and parents were all crying at the same time. With tempers frayed and tears flowing, it felt like a hostage stand-off situation.

Every decision we made felt like it would have a major impact on R’s life. We felt like we were always on a knife-edge of ruining his life. Or at least giving him a reason to go to therapy when he becomes an adult. Many decisions were made in the desperate hope of getting a little more sleep for R and ourselves.

One mistake was when we found R running a high fever and covered in red rash shortly after moving to the US, before our health insurance kicked in. R cried inconsolably and we thought he had fallen gravely ill. 

We rushed him to an emergency paediatrician, only to have the amused doctor tell us that R had the Roseola virus and we should go home and wait for the virus to clear itself up. We paid US$250 (S$340) for a two-minute consultation to learn that Roseola is a childhood virus which resolves itself after a few days. 

Given what we went through, it was a delight to read Cribsheet (2020), the best-selling book by Professor Emily Oster, who teaches economics at Brown University. 

The book espouses an approach towards parenting that I have not seen elsewhere. According to its introduction, it offers a “data-derived map of the big issues that come up in the first three years of being a parent”, such as breastfeeding, sleep training, vaccination and transitioning to solids.

Prof Oster shares how she, too, was bombarded by conflicting advice and often found it difficult to make decisions. On breastfeeding, she shared about how she struggled for three months even though she felt that her child was “clearly starving”, before she made progress.

In the review of the available evidence, she finds that breastfeeding does provide some health benefits to the child and mother. However, she debunks the data around breastfeeding and intelligence and makes the case for breastfeeding to be about the personal preference of parents. I like how she asks that mothers refrain from judging “themselves if you decide breastfeeding isn’t for you”. 

Prof Oster encourages parents to be honest with themselves and find what works for them. She advocates that parents ditch the guilt and do what is best for them and their kids.

My wife, too, struggled with breastfeeding R when he was born. Like Prof Oster, we soldiered on and eventually got it to work for us. We did not come across any convincing evidence to show that infant formula was superior to breast milk, so we defaulted to the cheaper option. What closed the deal for us was that we did not have to wash and sterilise bottle-feeding paraphernalia.

For me, the most useful part of Cribsheet was its practical approach to decision-making. It provides examples of checklists, financial analysis and a “bottom line” summary for sleep-deprived parents who want to get to the punchline without wading through each chapter.

The book is too late for us, but generally aligns with many of the parenting philosophies my wife and I have developed over the years. Had the book been available, it would have given us some comfort, that we were not crazies out to destroy the life of our first child.

We continue to marvel today at how R has grown up to be a healthy and generally well-adjusted 19-year-old, despite the many parenting mistakes we made, and without the help of Cribsheet.Source: The Straits Times