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Review: Emily Oster's Expecting Better

Updated: Jan 26

It turns out there is an overwhelming amount of information targeting mums-to-be. The first book I settled on was Emily Oster’s book Expecting Better because it appealed to my interest in data-driven information.

Oster is an economist. She’s not medically trained but rather, specialises in interpreting the quality and quantity of clinical evidence out there. I found her book a breath of fresh air. 

There are some common, fear-inducing narratives about pregnancy out there. Oster’s framing of these issues is very empowering. She describes the available data and then explains the level of risk and says, ultimately, it’s up to you. 

This led me to decide for example, that I was happy to eat Stilton (a mould-ripened cheese) bought from a major supermarket, but I avoided eating pre-packed sushi from the same retailer. 

This is a subtle judgment that considers the likelihood of a supermarket cheese containing listeria and the risk of food poisoning from sushi. Others might avoid both, as this is the safest of all choices. However, I decided Stilton was the safest way to satisfy my intense cravings for salty cheese, especially as the risk-averse NHS website explicitly describes Stilton as safe to consume in pregnancy.

So, whilst I found Oster’s book empowering, it also made each decision a little more uncertain. Now that I was armed with the reasons and evidence behind ‘The Rules,’ the choice behind each mouthful really was up to me. 

There is, of course, some comfort in being told what to do and conforming. Pregnancy is a funny time where people you barely know feel it’s ok to question your lifestyle choices. If you’re not willing to face such scrutiny then it probably is easier to fall in line with others’ expectations. 

UK medical professionals always advise abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy. This is not surprising, given that alcohol is an addictive substance. However, the evidence presented by Oster is more of a mixed picture. In spite of this, I decided it was much easier to conform to others’ expectations. I didn’t care enough about drinking alcohol to justify my choice. Personally, my stinky cheese cravings were more pressing!

Overall, I can see why some people might find Oster’s book overwhelming and possibly a little confusing. She’s really not into telling you what to do, or how to live your life. If you’re looking for the ‘New’ or ‘Alternative Rules’ for pregnancy, you’re not going to find them in this book. 

Personally, I like understanding the reasons and evidence behind recommendations. Reading this book helped me understand my options and ultimately made me less stressed throughout my pregnancy, even if I did sometimes need to revisit the book to remind me of why I wasn’t excessively worried about my choices. 

Expecting Better helped me make decisions that suited my particular situation and preferences and reduce stress during a particularly heightened period. And for that I am indebted to Ms Oster.

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