How much stress does a hurricane put on a pregnant woman? 'Harvey Mom' study hopes to find out

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HOUSTON – Chandra Frederick felt helpless during Hurricane Harvey.

“Having to walk through the water, or if we would have had to evacuate up onto the roof,” she said as she relived her fears during the storm.

Frederick has four kids now. She was nine months pregnant at the time, so getting on the roof wouldn’t have been just traumatic; she was not sure it was possible.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get them up there,’ with me being pregnant and my husband would have been trying to get them all up there,” Frederick said.

Her family repeatedly asked her to relax, she said, to get some rest. However, she said she was on her feet all day and night.

While walking to the front of her neighborhood, Frederick said firefighters saw her, sized up her condition and called an ambulance.

“They were driving and had water coming into the doors,” Frederick said.

Doctors determined Frederick was experiencing false labor. Her baby stayed put for a few more days, and it should’ve been a happy ending, because her house didn’t flood after all.

However, stress doesn’t drain quickly.

What effect does it have on our bodies? What effect does it have on babies?

Researchers and 1,100 Houston women want to know.

“There’s very little known about how much stress is OK and how much stress is not OK, and so this is the type of study that can help us answer that question,” Johanna Bick, University of Houston assistant professor of psychology, said.

The Harvey mom study is now closed, but Bick is electronically keeping tabs on women who were pregnant during Harvey or conceived up to six months later. She anticipates it could help future mothers facing natural disasters.

“From a scientific perspective, there are a number of ways to think about this. One hypothesis is that what happens in pregnancy could affect trajectories later on. There really are the events in that sensitive intrauterine environment that shape development,” Bick said. “Another hypothesis is that it’s the events in combination with that intrauterine environment that happen postnatally that shape development, and we know just from human development work that human experience does matter, but intrauterine and with the first few years’ development of life, it’s a very sensitive point of brain development.”

Bick expects to learn how a range of stressors impacted the women’s conception, labor, delivery and postpartum experiences. They’re monitoring women like Frederick who were scared and those who were not, women whose homes flooded and those whose homes did not, and they will eventually assess the children to monitor possible correlations between that stress and how they develop.

In the end, Frederick said she had a quick and easy labor, but the joy she felt didn’t make the stress unforgettable. Therefore, she’s taking part in the study.

The research is ongoing and may take years to complete. Researchers from UH are working with others around the country to compare stress in pregnancy during other natural disasters like snowstorms and wildfires.

Bick said the only thing they can say with certainty right now is that Harvey had a noticeably higher amount of stress compared to other disasters.

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