As we enter the most active part of hurricane season for 2018, a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development found that children born of mothers pregnant during 2012‘s Superstorm Sandy were negatively affected when it came to temperament which can impact whether they go on to develop anxiety and depression.
Superstorm Sandy hit in October and was one of the most destructive storms of the 2012 hurricane season. Millions lost power and over 100 people in the United States lost their lives.
The 2017 hurricane season was above average costing the United States economy $385 billion. There were 10 consecutive hurricanes in 2017, six of which were category three or higher. The only other time that happened was over 100 years ago in 1893.
Many researchers have identified physical and mental health issues in children that can be associated with maternal prenatal factors such as illness, psychological disorders, and stress.
The recent study titled: Infant Temperament: Repercussions of Superstorm Sandy-Related Maternal Stress is part of a larger study by Dr. Yoko Nomura (The Infants of Superstorm Sandy: The Epigenetic and Developmental Impact of Natural Disaster). Dr. Nomura and his colleagues including Jessica Buthmann from the psychology departments at the CUNY Graduate Center and CUNY Queens College have been following mothers since their pregnancy up to six years postpartum. Some of these mothers were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, and researchers wanted to know if the stress of the event, in particular during pregnancy, could impact the development of the children.
“Temperament, which refers to the expression and control of emotions, is an important aspect of development to study,” Buthmann told us. “It can help predict an individual’s risk of developing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. The core of our research question here was: Could a generation of children exposed to natural disasters be at risk for mental illness via poor temperament profiles?”
Following Superstorm Sandy, researchers asked mothers, some of whom were pregnant at the time, to tell them about their storm experience. Some questions were more objective (e.g., Did you lose power? Did you have property damage?) and others were more subjective (e.g., intrusive and distressing thoughts about the event). When the child was six months of age, the mother reported on the child’s temperament (e.g., Does the child smile or cry a lot? Does the child have trouble calming down after being upset?).
What Buthmann and her colleagues found was that objectively stressful storm experiences that mothers had were most closely associated with increased negative emotions and poor ability to control emotions among children at six months of age. Specifically, length of time without electricity and phone access and financial loss were associated with negative emotions. Threat of injury and financial loss were associated with limited ability to control emotions. Further, Buthmann told us she found that these aspects of emotion were more closely associated with experiencing the storm postnatally than prenatally.
“We were surprised because we expected that prenatal rather than postnatal exposure to the storm would be a stronger predictor of emotional development,” Buthmann told us. “We also expected that the subjective experience (e.g., distressing thoughts) would be a stronger predictor than objective experience (e.g., property damage). However, we did confirm that the devastation from Superstorm Sandy did cast a negative influence on children’s temperamental development.”
Buthmann says much more work has to be done. She explained that it is possible that having a young child makes a natural disaster more stressful than being pregnant or that the child seeing the storm directly for his or herself was more stressful than experiencing the mother’s stress indirectly from the womb.
“However, we need to be mindful that we only examined one aspect of the child development through early temperament,” Buthmann told us. “Without examining underlying biological changes that may be responsible for the child outcome, we should not be quick to conclude that postpartum period was more important than the stress that the child was exposed though mother’s experience.”
Buthmann says other studies have found that stressful early life events during early childhood (e.g., parental separation, maltreatment, etc.) are related to brain structure and function related to emotion expression and control, which may better explain what was observed in her study.
“We feel one of the most important takeaways from this study is the importance of natural disaster preparedness and services for mothers who are pregnant or have young children,” Buthmann told us. “In addition to Superstorm Sandy, the recent devastation from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria – and possibly more in the near future caused by climate change – have made the need to understand the impact of these events all the more urgent.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com