Understanding Maternal Stress on Child Development

A mother feeds her newborn from a bottle. DGLImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Ethically, one can hardly put pregnant women in distress on purpose. It took a natural disaster in Houston – Hurricane Harvey – for researchers at the University of Houston to study how stress affects the unborn and just-born children of women who are under a large amount of stress. Johanna Bick, Ph.D., and Rebecca Lipschutz, in the University of Houston’s psychology department, wondered how extreme stress would affect these Houstonian children as they developed.

A mother plays with blocks with her infant son. LaraBelova/E+/Getty Images

Hurricanes cause all types of trauma – people lose their homes, their belongings and even their lives. Those who were due to give birth just before and after the hurricane may have had increased stress hormones coursing through their bodies. One woman in the study went into premature labor just hours after taking in her neighborhood’s damage after the storm.

Parents were asked to describe their subjective stress levels at the time of the Hurricane and several time points after their babies were born. Mothers who reported higher stress related to the hurricane described their babies as more irritable than mothers with lower hurricane-related stress.

More objective measures of stress – whether their home was flooded, whether they evacuated, whether they lost their job during recovery – were also measured. Mothers who reported higher objective stress also described their babies as being more impulsive and overactive.

Recently, mothers and babies participated in a lab session when their babies turned two years of age. The mother’s objective stress during Hurricane Harvey is also associated with the child's physiological indicators of stress, such as heart rate.

There is good news, however. In Lipschutz’s words: “A mom’s parenting style can be a protective factor in this stressful world.” While their research is still in progress, they hope to find similar effects with children born after Harvey.

Category: Natural Disasters

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