Pregnant women who suffer through the strains of a hurricane or major tropical storm are more likely to have children with problems at birth, according to a new study by Princeton University researchers of the negative health impacts of stress.
The study, which examined birth records from Texas and meteorological information between 1996 and 2008, found expectant mothers living in the path of a major storm during the third trimester were 60 percent more likely to have a newborn with abnormal conditions than women whose pregnancies did not coincide with a major weather event.
Those conditions included being on a ventilator for more than 30 minutes after birth or meconium aspiration – when a newborn breathes in a mixture of feces and amniotic fluid around the time of delivery. Researchers also found a slightly increased risk for women exposed to weather-related stressors in the first trimester, but evidence was less clear for those in the second trimester.
One potential explanation for the health problems found in the study is that an increase in stress hormones caused by the storm may have an impact on the health of an unborn child.
"Probably the most important finding of our study is that it does seem like being subjected to stress in pregnancy has some negative effect on the baby, but that the effect is more subtle than some of the previous studies have suggested," said lead researcher Janet Currie.
She said the findings could inform future research and prepare clinicians better for possible health problems of children born in the wake of stressful events such as hurricanes.
"I think there's every reason to believe that if you have a better measure of child health — like you knew this child was having breathing problems at birth — that might be a stronger predictor of longer-term outcomes," Currie said. "There's a lot of interest in this whole area of how things that happen very early in life can affect future outcomes."
The new study included information on eight hurricanes and tropical storms that hit Texas between 1996 and 2008 and caused more than $10 million damage. They included Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which caused $50 billion in damage and 40 deaths, and Hurricane Ike, which caused $19.3 billion in damage and 103 deaths.
The study was funded, in part, by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.