Newborns Have Lasting Effects of Superstorm Sandy

a mother soothing a crying baby

The trauma of Superstorm Sandy affected the temperament of infants born just before and after the hurricane, according to a new study. In particular, being in a home without phone or electricity or experiencing financial loss or the threat of death from the storm, correlated with negative emotions in infants when they were assessed at six months of age.

“Our study supports existing research findings that maternal psychosocial and disaster-related stress can negatively impact optimal development in offspring,” said Queens College Adjunct Professor and Graduate Center doctoral student Jessica Buthmann (Psychology), a co-author of the study, along with Professor Yoko Nomura (GC/Queens, Psychology). The study was published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development.
 
The study included 380 women who were pregnant before, during, or after Superstorm Sandy, which hit in October 2012. Mothers reported their experiences during the storm and rated their child’s temperament at six months of age.
 
The authors found that longer time without phone or electricity as well as experiencing financial hardship were associated with higher levels of negative affect in the infants, meaning the babies displayed more distress when given limitations, and exhibited more fear and sadness. When families faced financial loss or threat of death or injury, the infants had higher levels of emotional dysregulation, meaning they scored low on cuddliness, soothability, and pleasure-seeking.
 
Existing research clearly shows that disaster-related stress can negatively impact the emotional well-being of infants, even if they were not yet born during the time of the disaster. The fetus is particularly sensitive to a mother’s symptoms of anxiety and depression. The stress hormone, cortisol, readily crosses the placenta. Similarly, a stressful environment in the months after birth can release high levels of cortisol in an infant, and has been shown to contribute to poor emotion regulation.

“Pre- and early postnatal stressors have the potential to predispose children toward psychopathology or functional impairment later in life,” said Buthmann. “Clinically significant repercussions related to Superstorm Sandy may not manifest for several years to come, but looking for these early differences may help identify children at risk.”
 
The authors advocate for increased education and awareness that disaster-related stress may have a negative impact on infant temperament. Although the stress caused by natural disasters might not be preventable, mental health services and other support for expectant mothers and mothers with young children may help reduce their impact.

Submitted on: OCT 16, 2018

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