Are "disaster babies" real?
Updated: Mar 21
Hospitals see more babies born 9 months after a disaster. Call it an Old Wife's Tale, urban legend or a myth, but it is nice to think that people trapped together do more than argue or cry.
Many believe that nine months following a significant power outage or natural disaster a different phenomenon rears its head. A baby boom. Nine months after nearly every newsworthy natural disaster, media outlets report a frenzy of births. Some of the more recent baby booms have been Hurricanes Sandy, Irma, Maria and Harvey. Let’s not forget the 2015 blizzard in Buffalo that brought more babies too.
Is it true? Is there any science that backs up the concept that people get bored playing cards by candlelight only to suddenly realize how romantic it is to be trapped because of a disaster? There was even rumors of a baby boom after 9-11! Is this even possible? Well, the science behind this phenomena it seems is about as accurate as the original science behind the COVID pandemic. Sketchy at best.
A 2007 study from Brigham University compiled a list of births nine months following storm advisories in Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions. This study discovered, “a positive and significant fertility effect”, during low-severity storms, not major catastrophes. Now this makes sense to me as candlelight and rain can make for some romantic evenings but the roof being torn off your house can ruin the mood.
The increase found by the folks at Brigham Young was highest among couples with at least one other child. This also makes sense to me because if you are trapped in a house with no television, then there is no Paw Patrol which means you have to entertain your child so the concept of making your kid a sibling to play with also seems pretty smart.
Philip Morgan, Professor of Sociology and Demography at Duke University who focuses on fertility says, “It’s an urban legend”. He says there is no reason to believe that events like the August 14, 2003 blackout that impacted 55 million people led to a larger than average number of May 2004 babies. Morgan speaks to the practicality of such situations. He talks about people being stranded thanks to transit issues and not being able to physically get to their partners, or the lack of air conditioning on a hot summer night leading to people wanting to remain cool instead of making babies.
So it would seem that science and logic are split on the topic so far.
For four weeks in 2008, a portion of the island of Zanzibar lost electricity. Because some of the island maintained power during this month, they were able to compare birth rates in areas which maintained their power grid directly with those who had not. Data from this comparison showed that those without electricity had a 17 percent higher birth rate, compared to those who maintained power. Put another one up on the YES side.
I personally worked in a hospital that experienced two different baby booms that fell exactly nine months after two major disasters so I am a believer but hospitals reporting busier times in birthing wards nine months post storm or other event are rarely scientifically tracked. This makes results unreliable at best. Articles following the November 9th, 1965 power outage suggested a spike in births. One hospital said they usually had 11 births on a typical day, but that number jumped to 29, nine months following the power outage. Official proof? Not necessarily.
I have been reading articles and white papers that at least prove that researchers are trying to keep better track of the data so someday we may have a real answer.
About nine months after Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic basin hurricanes ever recorded, hit Florida and shut down power for millions, the state’s hospitals say they experienced a massive baby boom nine months after the storm.
So the legend lives on whether it is scientifically proven or not. We have blizzard babies, hurricane babies, flood babies, ice storm babies and believe it or not, Washington D.C. has its own version called “furlough babies” which they get nine months after government shut-downs!
There’s ample anecdotal evidence from hospitals, yet very few studies have been able to prove any causal relationship between natural disasters and birth rates. One reason given by professionals for the uptick nine months later has nothing to do with the romantical side of being in the dark and cuddling to keep warm but rather in the fact that the drug store and convenience store are closed due to the disaster so certain “items” are not easily purchased before the disaster love-making. Not really scientific but the logic is all there.
The first well-documented instance of disaster baby-boom coverage was a series of three August 1966 New York Times articles reporting that a one-day lapse in electricity on the night of Nov. 9, 1965 had led to a sharp increase in births at local hospitals the following summer. In response to those claims, Udry conducted his now famous study, which found no relationship between the blackout and New York City birth rates.
A 2015 study, which measured the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, found that fertility rates increased in Indonesia after the disaster that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. That’s for two main reasons: Mothers who lost children in the tsunami were significantly more likely to bear additional children and women without children began having children earlier where tsunami-related mortality rates were higher.
The available studies don’t really back up what many observers believe to be true about the disaster baby boom. And yet, the myth persists.
So let’s move on to another topic, sort of.
Can a disaster throw you into labor? With Hurricane Matthew expected to deliver a devastating blow to Florida, pregnant women were already heading to the hospital ahead of time as a precaution. Two hospitals in the Miami area were allowing some pregnant women to register for sheltering at the hospital before the storm hit.
When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, some 1,500 pregnant women flocked to area hospitals. Some women ended up delivering their babies over the course of the hurricane—though most did not.
Still, there is evidence to support the idea that more women deliver babies at low barometric pressure—one of the key atmospheric conditions associated with a hurricane. In a 2007 paper published in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics researchers found “a significant increase” in pregnant women whose water broke—signaling delivery is imminent—during low pressure systems. The researchers concluded that low barometric pressure indeed induces delivery.
Additional studies have found similar outcomes, including a 1985 study that counted a “significant increase” among women whose water broke prematurely within three hours of an atmospheric pressure drop. Other meteorologic conditions seem to affect pregnancy outcomes, too. In desert climates, according to yet another study, the risk of preterm birth is higher in the spring and autumn, when the weather is most unstable.
There’s also a growing body of medical literature that finds links between stressful events in pregnancy—including natural disasters—and poor birth outcomes. One 2013 study found that even if a hurricane doesn’t induce labor, exposure to a hurricane during pregnancy increases a baby’s likelihood of some abnormal conditions—like needing to go on a ventilator for more than 30 minutes after delivery. Other studies have found less decisive links—or no links at all—between hurricanes and the onset of labor, and many scientists agree the relationship between labor and hurricanes requires more study. Most women, even those who are approaching their due date, won’t deliver their babies just because a hurricane is approaching.
It doesn’t really matter how or when you got pregnant. The question one needs to ask is “Will our baby be born in a disaster? As it turns out, pregnant women are just more vulnerable than the average person because of their physiology. Sinking barometric pressure is the number one accused reason. And research increasingly shows that the stress of a disaster can cause long-lasting damage.
Yoko Nomura, a professor of behavioral neurosciences at Queens College, CUNY, is studying the children of women who were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy. The results are beginning to emerge, and Nomura says they’re “mind-boggling.”
“Children born from [these] mothers have a different cognitive, neurobehavioral, psychosocial, and physiological profile,” she explained. “They are more reactive, they are more anxious, they are more fearful…they are more likely to be aggressive.”
“The mother’s body is trying to prepare the child to become more alert and more reactive…so they’ll be able to deal with the environment more appropriately,” she said. “Even if women are able to handle the stress, body and mind are two different things sometimes.”
Robin Lim is an internationally celebrated midwife and activist who runs a nonprofit providing maternal and family health services in Indonesia. She said that the poor women she treats – many of whom live in disaster-prone areas – are particularly vulnerable.
“When [women] are suddenly homeless and they don’t have enough potable water…or any food, we begin to see all kinds of complications,” she said.
Those complications include stillbirths, premature infants, low birth weights, hemorrhage, and retained placentas, which can be deadly for the mother.
According to Lim, these effects are due to a combination of poor conditions and extraordinary stress.
Complications may also arise in poor communities after a disaster because “the traditional birth attendants have also been killed,” Lim said. She recalled that, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, only about 30 midwives remained in the province of Aceh out of more than 150.
So we wait on the science for the final answers, we stock up on candles and a battery operated LP player. Who knows? Maybe next time your town hears the sirens going, you and your significant other may just throw caution to the wind!