NDSU study shows major flooding affects growth of unborn babies
Published June 2016
New results of an NDSU study indicate devastating floods can have an effect on the next generation. The big question is, “why?”
The research, led by Clayton Hilmert, associate professor of psychology, examined the Red River Valley’s historic 2009 flood and analyzed how it affected the pregnancies of local women living near the rising waters.
The study, “Major Flood Related Strains and Pregnancy Outcomes,” appears in the June 9 issue of Health Psychology, a scholarly journal of the American Psychological Association’s Division 38, known as the Society for Health Psychology.
“The take-home message is if you are pregnant and live near a flood, you may be at risk for having a smaller baby,” Hilmert said, noting babies weighing less than 5.5 pounds face a greater chance of infant mortality or development issues. “A lot of negative outcomes are associated with lower birth weights, so it’s an important topic.”
During the flood, Hilmert and his team of researchers interviewed more than 100 healthy pregnant women seeking pre-natal care at Fargo-Moorhead health care facilities, then called MeritCare and Innovis. They were also given permission to examine dozens of ultrasound measurements.
“The ultrasounds show that for women who were later in pregnancy when the flood hit, fetal growth continued in a normal slope. But, for women in the first trimester or early second trimester, you can see the change in growth; it slowed down for those women,” said Hilmert, a health and social psychologist whose main research interests are stress psychophysiology, cardiovascular health and pregnancy.
He initially thought the mothers-to-be likely suffered from stress brought on by the flood. So, the researchers asked the women if they participated in tension-filled situations, such as sandbagging, evacuation preparation and property loss or if they simply felt general strain.
Hilmert was surprised by the responses.
“These, by themselves, did not account for the lower birth weights. But, there was something specific to the flood that was leading these women to have smaller babies,” he said. “We don’t know the pathway or exact physiological explanation for this, but our study is one of the first pieces of fetal growth evidence like this.
It’s a frustrating, unanswered question as to why these women who were earlier in their pregnancies had smaller babies,” he said.
The journal article concludes by saying the impact of major flooding on pregnancy outcomes needs further attention, suggesting more investigations during and after disasters.
“Flooding doesn’t discriminate,” Hilmert said. “It happens all over the world to people of all financial situations. So, this is a serious topic.”
Hilmert was assisted in his 2009 research by three former NDSU psychology students: Lexi Kvasnicka-Gates MS ’09, PhD ’11; Ai Ni Teoh, PhD ’15; and Konrad Bresin, BS ’09, MS ’11. The research team also included Siri Fiebiger, an obstetrician-gynecologist who is now practicing in Minneapolis. They are listed as co-authors on the paper.