Book review: Expecting Better

I have read exactly one pregnancy book so far, and this was it. I’m a voracious reader, but on this topic I find myself reluctant to invest the money and time for a few reasons. Firstly, Google is a bit of a book killer in that it’s about a billion times easier to just search the one obscure thing I’m curious about at any given moment than to sift through a poorly organized index. Secondly, pregnancy information is both boring and disturbing in pretty much equal measure. More than anything though, the problem is that my reading preferences are pretty particular: I want books that tell me what I want to hear. I’m looking for corroboration here, people, not condemnation. I am a choir in desperate search of a preacher. And I want that nice preacher to tell me that it’s okay to dye my hair, eat tuna and drink the occasional beer.

So this book, subtitled: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong— and What You Really Need to Know, really appealed to me. As the author points out, just one or two weak studies can rapidly become “conventional wisdom” and this means that in some cases, the existing “rule” is wrong. In others, it isn’t a question of right or wrong but what is right for you and your pregnancy—like the ham sandwich example from the book that I frequently bore people with to illustrate this point. Avoiding ham (the deli meat kind) would lower your risk of listeria from about 1 in 8,333 to 1 in 8,255. Depending on how much you want to eat ham (me: a lot) and what your tolerance for risk is, you might say, “Why risk it?” or “Any risk is still a risk!” Or, if you’re me (ham girl) you would say, “meh, I’ll roll the dice on those odds.” Nobody’s right or wrong here – but having quantifiable information allows you to make a decision that feels right to you. Which I find infinitely more useful than the blanket recommendation to avoid all deli meats.

Hmm, what would make this post more of the promised book review and less of my typical ranting? Author credentials. Right-o then. Emily Oster is an economist – heavily trained in statistics but not a medical expert – who found many of the current pregnancy recommendations to be problematic in a number of ways. Upon first becoming pregnant, she set out to find evidence to support her own coffee habit (and was able to) and ended up writing a whole book about it. She sifted through a bunch of studies on popular topics, evaluated them and made her own judgments based on the “good studies”.

I found all of it fascinating and incredibly empowering. Not only because of the way it allowed me to ignore some of the conventional pregnancy “wisdom”, but also because it encouraged me to look more critically at all studies (and the journalistic reporting of such) on the whole. This is not a touchy-feely book to be sure, but some people have criticized it for having a blunt tone, even finding it confrontational—which I didn’t at all. Though I suppose if I were a doctor (she’s fairly critical of the medical system as it pertains to pregnancy and its patronizing treatment of women) or a public health policy-maker I would be pretty frustrated with having my authority undermined.

I particularly liked that she doesn’t give hard and fast recommendations, but lays out the information and helps you consider what might factor into your personal decision-making process. I also liked that she takes you from pre-conception through each trimester, all the way to labour and delivery, with topics relevant to each phase. I find myself referring back to it all the time. It doesn’t necessarily replace your doctor’s advice – but it does help you understand their recommendations and question them in an intelligent, informed way. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing break from the don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that just because I said so sort of advice that seems to go hand-in-hand with getting knocked up.

So then, 5 stars. Loved it. Do read.