Busting Pregnancy Myths

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pregnancy myths, busted.

This segment originally aired on September 20, 2013. An edited version was included in a best-of Brian Lehrer Show episode on December 26. The audio from the original segment is posted here.

Emily Oster, economics professor at the University of Chicago and author of the new book Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong - and What You Really Need to Know, discusses her book where she challenges rules about pregnancy and offers her own advice based on her examination of the data.


Emily Oster

Comments [36]


DISGUSTED! How dare WNYC allow Emily Oster, an Economist, to tell women it's OK to drink in their 2nd and 3rd trimesters!! That information is downright wrong and dangerous. I won't listen to Brian Lehrer show anymore. I'm not sure I can donate $ anymore. Where's the balanced reporting?

WNYC should've had a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Expert on the show - someone who actually works with people with FASD, does research in that area or diagnoses FASD. WNYC failed in educating us with real data and information.

Oster chose not to look at all of the studies by the leading researchers in the field of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Every researcher will tell you that 100% of the alcohol crosses the placenta. When you drink, your growing fetus drinks with you.

Some real facts:

1. Alcohol is a neurotoxin. Forty years of research has shown alcohol to be a neurotoxin in utero. That means alcohol is a toxic substance to the developing baby; just like carbon monoxide and lead are toxic substances to adults. Alcohol kills fetal brain cells. Why would Emily Oster encourage women to expose their developing baby to any amount of a toxic substance?
2. Developing babies can’t process any amount of alcohol. Growing babies lack the ability to process or metabolize alcohol through the liver or other organs. Alcohol crosses the placenta, and research has shown that, “One to 2 [hours] after maternal ingestion, fetal blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) reach levels nearly equivalent to maternal levels.”
3. Alcohol is more harmful to a developing baby than heroin or cocaine. According to The Institute of Medicine, “Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus.” Oster's article in the Wall Street Journal implies that cocaine use is more harmful than wine, which is not based on any data whatsoever, but simply relies on the fact that cocaine is illegal and wine is legal and socially acceptable.
Oster says, “It’s fine to have the occasional glass of wine – even one every day – in the second and third trimesters.” This is simply not true without some risk. Dr. Michael Charness of Harvard Medical School gives just one example: “We’ve been able to show very striking effects of alcohol on the L1 cell adhesion molecule, a critical molecule for development, at concentrations of alcohol that a woman would have in her blood after just one drink.”

WNYC - fix the damage you've done by having Oster spread inaccurate info on your station. Get some real experts in to explain the research and data!!

Jan. 07 2014 11:22 PM

@ ivan obregon from Manhattan

1. Mercury was removed from routine chilhood immunizations in 2001.
2. There is far more mercury in fish, and it is in a form that accumulates in the body (methylmercury), whereas the mercury in vaccines (ethylmercury) is a type that is more rapidly eliminated from the body.

It's amazing to me that almost 13 years after mercury was eliminated from vaccines due to parental pressure, not scientific evidence I might add, that people still think there is mercury in vaccines!

Dec. 29 2013 11:26 AM
michael from nyc

Brian's typical medical show, demonstrating how doctors are condescending arrogant people who are usally wrong and out to mislead people.
Patients always have the right to ignore their doctor's advice (and often do) and follow that of economists or new york times reporters.
If doctors had been recommending coffee, and alcohol and hair dying and sushi, I am sure you would have found another guest to come on pointing out all the potential harm that could arise from it.

Dec. 26 2013 11:31 AM
ivan obregon from manhattan

why is mercury in fish to be avoided during pregnancy whereas mercury in vaccines via thimerosal is claimed to be harmless by the american medical establishment when Europe has largely banned thimerosal from vaccines?

Dec. 26 2013 11:30 AM
Laura R., CNM, MSN from Nashville, TN


Im afraid you are misinformed regarding the training of midwives. There exists three different catagories of midwives in this country. The first is the Certified Lay Midwife. Lay Midwives are trained solely through an apprenticeship. They are trained in prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum care, and newborn care. The second catagory of midwife is the Certified Professional Midwife. Training for CPMs includes class work as well as supervised clinical training. Lastly, Certified Nurse Midwives have master's degrees in nursing with a specialty of midwifery. In order to qualify for nurse midwifery program, candidates must have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Both the BSN and the MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) are medical training. Like an MD, CNMs have diagnosing and prescriptive privileges. All three catagories of midwives are regulated through state and federal laws, and must be licenced through their individual professional organizations.

Sep. 24 2013 05:59 PM
LLDonovan from CT

There is much to be critiqued here. Take a look at:

Sep. 22 2013 01:02 PM

I had a midwife for my pregnancy two years ago, and even though we never spent less than 45 minutes together, we never had in depth conversations about risk assessment. She gave pronouncements from on high just like doctors tend to do. I don't think the problem is that doctors don't spend enough time with patients, I think care providers are just rarely well versed in the literature themselves (to the commenter above who said they spend 7 years in school, yes, but mostly not learning how to read research!). Care providers take their cues from organizations like ACOG who make public policy based on internal review of the evidence. The only problem with that is that these organizations are also dealing with worries about litigation, worries about patients at higher risk falling through the cracks, a distrust of individual doctors properly conveying risk assessment (doctors are pretty much as bad as patients at understanding risk), etc.

Take, for example, the recommendation (and in many states the law) that all pregnant women get tested for HIV twice during pregnancy. Most women are at very low risk of contracting HIV during pregnancy, but the added stress, cost, and invasion of personal liberty around informed consent is considered a fair risk to catch the very few women who will be surprised by a positive result. This is not personalized medicine, it is public policy medicine. I want my own care provider to practice personalized, evidence based care, but that means I have to do a lot of research, because she is not going to know when I walk into the office that I am not just blowing steam when I say I want collaborative, personalized, research based care. It is our responsibility as patients to be as fully informed as possible and to also assert our own values when it comes to getting good medical care. Then it is our responsibility to not sue our care providers for something ridiculous like not telling us not to drink!

For parents to be who are interested in a really excellent source on the evidence for practices in childbirth, please check out The site is written and managed by a childbirth professional who is also a qualified medical researcher. It includes practice guidelines you can give your providers for evidence based recommendations about practices in childbirth. She will also be offering continuing ed courses for credit for care providers starting soon.

Sep. 20 2013 01:34 PM

Pregnancy tips:

Eat more grains, rice, veggies. Amazing brain food. Once the child is born stay on this diet for as long as possible. Do NOT introduce sugar added foods to your babies diet, including up to toddler age.

Listen to calm music, avoid loud people and environments, read to your baby. A glass of wine now & then is no biggie. Do daily yoga- great for the lower back and to calm stress, mood swings. Avoid tv. Socialize more in the real world, or listen to the radio, storytelling.

Once the baby is born, touch her/him as much as possible. Give them an oil rub down once daily or as much as possible in a week. Indian mums often do this for their babies... for this there's been endless generations of calm kids who become calm, smart adults, free of neurosis, anxiety, mental health issues.

As the baby becomes a toddler don't be a helicopter parent or over protective- let them play in the dirt (yes, those microbes in the soil are GOOD for them), with other kids, with animals (isolating them from nature INCREASES allergies), try new foods. Take them swimming- builds strength, confidence, independence and is fun. Laugh with them, tickle, play, be silly. Don't change your lifestyle and carry bulky baby carriages everywhere- a sling does just fine. No tv! This is a actually very important particularly for the youngest ages 0-4, while the babies brain is still developing. TV shortens attention spans, increases aggression, stress.

Allow for quiet time, where nothing is scheduled, and the mind can build imagination. What busy adults see as 'nothing' (boring down time) is actually a white canvas where the brain becomes an artist, can think, build, design, pretend. This is super important to developing a health brain.

Blend the baby into your already existing adult life, you needn't restructure your life drastically, need to dote on your baby. Think more in terms of baby is coming along- not it's all about the baby... Unless you want dysfunctional, selfish, narcissistic child.

Sep. 20 2013 11:36 AM
Don from Queens NY

The CDC says "Flu is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than in women who are not pregnant" and strongly recommends Flu shots.

Sep. 20 2013 11:23 AM
BK from Hoboken

I would take the advice of a doctor over an economist and a midwife who has obvious bias (the "paternalistic" comment). Lets not forget the 7 years of training an OB goes through. That said, there are a LOT of unknowns when it comes to fertilization, pregnancy, and delivery. So many of these issues are easy to solve for a pregnant woman by just being cautious. As my wife said during her two pregnancies: why risk it? It's not like it will kill her to give up coffee or wine for 9 months of her life.

Sep. 20 2013 11:22 AM

Anyone who has seen the difficult effects of FAS on a child whose mother drank during pregnancy knows that doctors are 100% right to say don't drink at all. It's NOT worth the risk.

Sep. 20 2013 11:17 AM

Midwives and Doulas have zero medical training. dangerous.

Sep. 20 2013 11:17 AM
Jennifer Call from Upper West Side

Regarding Flu Shots - My health insurance, United Health Care set me up with a nurse that checks in on me once a month and she encouraged me to get a flu shot so I did.

Sep. 20 2013 11:16 AM
Lorrie Greynald from Brooklyn

As a 43 year old mother of 3, I am past all of this. Still, this person had a lot of nerve assuming that she can write a book of pregnancy advice and that her economics experience somehow transfers over to medicine and public health. What is her scientific training. Or is this just another example of our societies disdain for properly trained scientists.
Good for her, I guess, that she could sell her book.
But I wouldn't waste my money on it? Why is she taking up the airwaves with this?

Sep. 20 2013 11:14 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Could women who grew up w/cats have already been exposed to toxoplasmosis & therefore be immune?

Sep. 20 2013 11:12 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

The bed rest I'm talking about is women being told to stay in bed all day, not just getting a good night's sleep.

Sep. 20 2013 11:11 AM
Leah from Bronx

Sorry, I'm going to trust my doctor rather than an economist. My faith in economists is, sad to say, quite low these days.

Sep. 20 2013 11:10 AM
Sarah from Manhattan

QUESTION: What about things regarding balance? I ride my bike and would like to ice skate this winter. Has the author looked at statistics of women falling? Is this threat overblown?

Sep. 20 2013 11:10 AM
Jennifer D from Brooklyn

As a mother and a Special Education teacher, I have a problem with those who try to find the "safe amount" of chemicals we can expose growing fetuses to. Simply looking at how exposure effects miscarriage rates, birth weight, etc. doesn't address issues that are not quantifiable, such as the child's cognitive development further down the line. Research on maternity and birth issues are often divorced from the possible long range effects faced by children when they are older. Why can't our society just agree that avoiding chemicals (including caffeine and alcohol) is best practice, end of story. I don't see abstaining from these things for a few months as a huge sacrifice to make for my children.

Sep. 20 2013 11:09 AM
Amy from NJ

When I was pregnant with my second child, we moved to London. My new doc counseled me to keep my alcohol consumption to 10 glasses of wine/week, which I easily did, consuming a glass of wine with dinner a few nights each week. Sixteen years later, that baby is a straight A student, a three season athlete, and an all around wonderful person. I guess the proof is in the pudding.

As an aside, I also did not breast feed that daughter (my milk supply just wasn't consistent and her sister and brother were each breastfed for a minimum of 6 months). Ironically, she is my highest achieving child, with far milder allergy symptoms than her siblings. Go figure.

Sep. 20 2013 11:09 AM
Kate from UWS

For women who are trying to get pregnant, how do coffee and alcohol affect fertility?

Sep. 20 2013 11:08 AM
John A

How old is this person? She seems Very pro-risk. If the typical American mother is a few years past prime and therefore wants to eliminate all risk during the pregnancy then that does sound wisest. If she's 23 then there will be more resiliency to lean on - 38, definitely not.

Sep. 20 2013 11:07 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Estelle

Bed rest is always good for everybody. That is why hospitals have beds, so that people can rest as they recuperate. Resting is always important in healing the body, and in a work-oriented world, we often call it laziness. But in fact, rest and particularly sleep are very necessary for optimal health over the long run.

Sep. 20 2013 11:07 AM
Amy from Manhattan

On doctors' not having time to explain the complexity of what's safe to do during pregnancy, why couldn't doctors just take a few seconds to say it *is* complex & hand the woman a pamphlet giving the details?

Sep. 20 2013 11:07 AM

How about smoking pot?

Sep. 20 2013 11:04 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

What about bed rest for difficult pregnancies?

Sep. 20 2013 11:04 AM
gene from NYC

How come it's always the economists who claim medical researchers don't control for all sorts of known factors?

Especially this ghastly-voiced creature, who touts herself as some sort of medical expert, doesn't even provide the slightest backing for her half-assed theories?

Then she hypes herself all up and writes a book about it??

And Brian, right from the title of this item (Busting Pregnancy Myths), seems to be all too ready to swallow her bilge wholesale.

She's busting no "myths." Lots of what she talks about are known and considered seriously by medical personnel. They just don't lay them out as Gospel Truth, with themselves as Moses. Or write some faux "myth-busting" book about them.

Sep. 20 2013 11:04 AM
Sarah from Queens

I was wondering about the question of soft cheese. I looked into it briefly and it seemed that the NIH records indicated that most listeriosis outbreaks came from vegetables, not from soft cheese or deli meat.

Sep. 20 2013 11:03 AM
Heather from NJ

As a mother of two I was concerned by all of the things I was told to (or not to) consume or do during pregnancy. So much so that if I were driving behind a bus with smokey exhaust I would pull over until it was gone.

I believe the paranoia/anxiety this produces in women is both unnecessary and confusing.

Many people in the media, when discussing why some parents don't vaccinate their babies point to parents being misinformed about vaccinations causing autism. I believe moreso for mothers who don't vaccinate, the reason is because they don't want to inject their babies with so many toxic substances--as they were almost convinced to purify their bodies while pregnant--so why now inject toxins into their babies?

Sep. 20 2013 11:03 AM
Michael from Manhattan

In Japan it's not the sushi it is the H pylori infection (not from sushi) that is one of the major contributors to stomach cancer

Sep. 20 2013 11:03 AM
Tobi from Brooklyn, NY

Your guest makes a fantastic point about how nausea can be one indicator of a healthy pregnancy and how coffee (even the smell of it) could trigger morning sickness. I am 4.5 months pregnant, usually LOVE coffee, but avoided it in my first trimester because the smell was so repelling. Now that I'm in my second trimester, I'm back to drinking one cup (under the 200mg recommendation) per day. Yay!

Does your guest have any thoughts on herbal teas? It's such a gray area and very hard to research. Thanks!

Sep. 20 2013 11:02 AM

Why gamble with your kid?

Sep. 20 2013 11:00 AM

What about dying your hair (single process? highlights? etc...)

Sep. 20 2013 10:58 AM
John A

Most frequently stated on WNYC comment pages: 'the world is overpopulated already so don't have Any children'. Myth? Unsure.

Sep. 20 2013 10:57 AM
Jennifer Call from Manhattan

I am 8 weeks pregnant with my first child and am 38 years old. I have been a vegan for 2 & 1/2 years and eat very healthily. I LOVE coffee and go with the rule that 12 oz. or 200 mg. of coffee a day are safe. ~ Jennifer in Manhattan.

Sep. 20 2013 10:57 AM
Robert from NYC

So pregnant women out there get out a beer, sit back and listen.

Sep. 20 2013 10:53 AM

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