Twenty years ago to the day, it was dubbed Black Friday in Montreal. The downtown core was plunged into darkness and hospitals were fighting to keep power.
Many children were thrilled to be off school but the storm and massive power outages were highly stressful for many parents.
One Montreal-based researcher and mother-of-two decided to turn the dark time into a rare research opportunity.
“Even before the ice storm happened, I was interested in prenatal maternal stress and how it affects a child’s mental health,” said Douglas Hospital researcher Dr. Suzanne King.
“I started putting together a study where I would recruit pregnant women from the ice storm and follow them and their children over time.”
The study found that women who were exposed to the peak of the ice storm in the first half of their pregnancies had babies with lower birth weights.
Pregnant women who weathered the height of the storm in their third trimester had babies with lower fine motor skills. And all project participants were more prone to anxiety and depression from the age of four to their early teens.
The findings come as no surprise to Alexia Peloso who was born shortly after the ice storm. The first-year university student has been plagued with anxiety throughout most of her life.
“I’m not surprised at all actually — a lot of what the mom goes through during her pregnancy really affects the baby,” Peloso said.
Her mother clearly remembers the stress of having to cook food in the fireplace after losing power for four days. She also recalls worrying about giving birth in the peak of the storm.
“She was due at the end of January so she could have popped out at any time during the ice storm,” Linda Drisdell told Global News. “There was an OBGYN strike being threatened as well so that plus the ice storm plus hospital’s low power was kind of worrisome but I’m normally a calm person so I was very calm.”
Peloso turns 20 years of age on Feb. 8. She’s convinced the ice storm has played a part in her development and perhaps that explains why she’s now studying psychology at McGill University.
And what’s most interesting for researchers is that knowing what affects the fetus can now help families optimize their chances of having healthier children.
While natural disasters are often unavoidable, mothers-to-be should try to reduce stress levels whenever possible.
“What we’re learning from Project Ice Storm is that the fetus is very sensitive to the mother’s environment,” Dr. King said. “I would say that the take-home message for couples that are thinking of becoming pregnant or women who are currently pregnant is that it’s not the time to make a major change.”