Downed trees and branches dotted my block, as cars floated down the streets in the nearby neighborhoods. This is what my son and I experienced living in middle of Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy. What I felt was anxiety for myself and my neighbors, especially the children starting their life’s journey in such an unstable climate.
Just when mothers have started to recover from the rigors of COVID, a new study adds to the “stress” of motherhood.
The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has published the paper “Stress in Pregnancy,” co-authored by Dr. Yoko Nomora and Jeffrey H. Newcorn. The former is a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College. The latter is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and the director of the ADHD and Learning Disorders Division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The research showed “an association between in utero exposure to natural disasters and child behavioral problems.” The same sentence added, “but we still know little about the development of specific psychopathology in preschool-aged children.”
So what does this mean?
The doctors presented stats from a sample of mothers who were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy, which devastated New York City and its environs in October 2012.
They culled data representing diverse demographics from 163 preschool-aged children. The percentage of children from racial and ethnic minorities was 85.5%. The initial intake interviews took place among the group at the median age of 3.19. The sample included 40.5% of the group that had pregnant mothers impacted by Sandy and 59.5% who were not.
Subjects between the ages of 2 and 5 were evaluated annually to determine if there were any signs of psychopathology developing, using the Preschool Age Psychopathological Assessment test standard (PAPA). It was noted that “analyses were controlled for the severity of objective and subjective Superstorm Sandy-related stress, concurrent family stress, and demographic and psychosocial confounders, such as maternal age, race, socio-economic status, maternal substance use, and normative prenatal stress.”
That’s a lot of confounders.
The results were divided by sex, with male children having more “disruptive” disorders and female children being more prone to anxiety and depression. It made me question if the doctors considered any of the early societal expectations of gender.
The conclusions of the study were as follows:
“The findings demonstrate that in utero exposure to a major weather-related disaster (SS) was associated with increased risk for psychopathology in children and provided evidence of distinct psychopathological outcomes as a function of sex. More attention is needed to understand specific parent, child, and environmental factors which account for this increased risk and to develop mitigation strategies.”
Nomora has researched the in utero impact of maternal smoking. She, and others, have written about the connection between maternal stress during pregnancy and the critical role that element plays in a child’s mental health development.
Newcorn was quoted about the study in a Medical Express article. He said, “Our ongoing study elucidates the impact of environmental stress on the psychiatric development of preschool children and the elevated risks for early psychopathology in this population.” He noted, “Most strikingly, the type of mental health problems very much depended on the biological sex of the child.”
How can parents respond to this information on a less granular level?
For me, the top takeaway is that climate change impacts every aspect of our society in unimaginable ways. And life is exponentially more dangerous for those in frontline communities and economically marginalized populations.
Maternal health issues are underserved in minority mothers and result in adverse birth outcomes. Black women have the highest rate of maternal mortality in America. Premature births, low birth weights, and infant mortality result from ongoing and pronounced exposure to chronic stressors.
Now, the trauma of climate disasters is another added mom stressor and a clear call to parents that we must use the information provided by doctors and scientists to strengthen our voices and demand no wiggle room regarding accountability from our elected officials.