A mug of Guinness was irresistible during Angela Breton's first
pregnancy. Red wine smelled delicious during her second pregnancy,
and caffeine was necessary to get through the day with her third
pregnancy. Artificial sweeteners and sushi were off-limits, but
sometimes lunch meat was OK.
The Chicago mom's approach to pregnancy was to listen to her
"You know your body better than anyone else. Just use your head
and make the best decisions," Breton says.
Another Chicago mom, Elizabeth Greene, followed the advice of
doctors and pregnancy books "to a T." She swore off sword fish and
Ahi tuna-her favorite foods. During her pregnancy she didn't drink
a sip of alcohol, but allowed herself two cups of tea a day.
Though the two Chicago women had different pregnancy
experiences, they both gave birth to healthy babies and they agree
that women should feel comfortable making their own decisions while
pregnant-an attitude author Emily Oster hopes more women adopt
after reading her new book Expecting Better: Why the Conventional
Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know. Since
its release, the book has been getting a lot of buzz.
"People contact me a lot. Like every day," says Oster. "Honestly
I expected it to generate some discussion, but I didn't expect it
to generate to this level of fervor."
Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago, wrote the book
hoping to dispel myths by evaluating risks versus benefits of
decisions women face during pregnancy-everything from weight gain,
bed rest and prenatal testing to hair dye, deli meats and nausea.
She researched and analyzed like an economist, scouring studies and
research journals, compiling the data, and reaching
"It's OK to think about these decisions on your own," says
Oster, who was pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter Penelope
while she wrote the book. "One very important thing to remember is
everyone is approaching these things differently. You're always
thinking about the risks and benefits."
By researching and evaluating information, Oster, who lives in
Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, made her own decisions. She drank
one to two glasses of wine a week and five or more cups of coffee a
day. She gained a little more weight than the amount suggested by
her doctors, ate deli meat and opted not to get an epidural.
"A lot of this is just driven by wanting to get concrete numbers
to put on risks, and use these to make my own decisions," Oster
In Chapter 4, the most controversial in the book, Oster argues
that one to two alcoholic drinks a week will not harm the baby,
which is contrary to the stance of the U.S. Surgeon General and the
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that no
alcohol is safe during pregnancy.
"We know that alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading cause
of mental retardation in children," says Dr. Jeanne Conry,
president of the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists. "There are potentially life-long impacts and we
cannot predict what level of alcohol exposure will end up with what
result for which woman. Until science can unequivocally answer that
question, then the safest course for a woman is to avoid alcohol
for her nine months of pregnancy."
Oster wasn't satisfied with this rigid restriction, and when she
researched studies about pregnancy and alcohol, she found many were
flawed, and most results varied. In the end, she concluded, there
was no evidence to indicate one or two glasses of wine a week was
Medical professionals differ on their views of this issue.
Some tend to stick closely to the guidelines set by the American
Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, while others give
their patients a little leeway to make their own decisions.
Dr. Javier Fajardo, a Chicago-based obstetrician and assistant
professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern
University, says he usually insists women stay away from alcohol
"There is no formal data that says a glass of wine here and
there wouldn't cause any harm. The recommendation is to have women
not drink any amount of alcohol because we don't know how much is
too much," Fajardo says. "That's the one thing I try not to
negotiate with my patients."
Another Chicago-based obstetrician, Julie Levitt, has a
different tactic. With her patients she focuses on moderation with
most issues. A glass of wine every week is OK, as well as a little
caffeine every day and sushi from reputable restaurants.
"I don't want patients to feel like the answer is no, no and no.
I want to say 'Yes. You can have these things.' There are ways to
enjoy a variety of things you used to love in pregnancy. You don't
have to stop just because you're pregnant," Levitt says. "I love
anything that challenges the establishment and all of the myths. I
think the difficulty is it's really hard as a patient to know which
sources to trust."
Both Fajardo and Levitt agree it's important to discuss issues
with patients and explain the risks so they can make healthy
decisions. This way of thinking was the gist of Oster's book.
"Pregnancy and childbirth (and child rearing) are among the most
important and meaningful experiences most of us will ever have;
probably the most important. Yet we are often not given the
opportunity to think critically about the decisions we make.
Instead, we are expected to follow a largely arbitrary script
without question. It's time to take control," Oster wrote in her
Kristy MacKaben is a freelance writer and mom living in Lake Zurich.
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