The stress of the mothers detected in the “children of the ice”

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir
Led by the professor of psychiatry Suzanne King, the Ice storm Project is studying the consequences of stress experienced by pregnant women at the time of the ice storm of January 1998.

20 years ago, Québec was facing one of the biggest natural disasters of its history. Between 4 and 10 January 1998, the ice storm has left up to 100 millimetres of freezing rain on its way, plunging into the dark more than a million customers of Hydro-Québec, in the worst of the crisis. The first text of a series to read until Saturday on this episode marking.

A high level of stress experienced by a pregnant mother may increase risk factors to the unborn child.


For example, among the participants of a study called Project Ice storm, the girls whose mothers have felt, pregnant, higher stress, have consumed more cannabis at 15 years of age than those whose mothers had experienced stress a lot less.


The Ice storm Project conducted by the professor of psychiatry Suzanne King, studying the consequences of stress subjective (experienced) and objective (measured, for example, by the number of days without electricity) experienced by pregnant women at the time of this natural disaster that has frozen under the ice and plunged into the black, a large area of Quebec in January 1998. He follows regularly and in the 20 years since ” children of the ice “, born in the wake of this event.


It was also observed that at the age of 19 years, the girls of Project Ice storm which have a pituitary gland higher have a higher consumption of cannabis.


“This is important, since the pituitary is the gland “master” of the body. For example, it controls the secretion of stress hormones, reproduction, growth, etc, ” says a postdoctoral researcher Sherri Lee Jones, a member of this project of McGill University and the research centre of the Douglas hospital.


For Ms. Jones, this result, albeit preliminary, means that prenatal stress has an effect on the neuroendocrine system, which may then explain the risk factors such as a greater use of cannabis “.




All children who participate in this study “go well” and their development is ” normal “, repeated dr. King and his colleagues.


Some of the consequences of the events of 1998, however, are measurable and have been demonstrated over the years.


Among these, we note that the children whose mothers have experienced a great stress objective have an IQ of 10 points lower than children whose mothers have experienced a lot less stress.


This, however, are the consequences on the body mass index of children who were the most surprised the team.


Thus, the more objective stress of the mother has been great, most of these children have a high BMI. “This is the most important,” said David Laplante, research associate, specializing in psychology of development. It is also, according to him, the effect ” the most worrying “. As this effect was unexpected, and that instead of fading, it keeps up with the years.


Moreover, it was observed that a higher BMI is related to the fact that the girls participating in the research have had their menstruation earlier. “The effect on BMI […] can affect the hormonal system and the system of reproductive hormones in particular,” says Sherri Lee Jones.


Search conditions unique


The ice storm, “it is mother Nature who has made with human beings, researchers can [normally] do with animals,” explains Suzanne King, met by The Duty in his office of the Douglas hospital.


In January 1998, it was deprived of electricity for seven days. It is aware of its own stress as a parent of young children then aged 4 and 6 years old that she decided to study the effects of stress related to the crisis, not on the mothers like it, but on women being.


Four hospitals in the Montérégie region helped it to come into contact with women who were pregnant at the time of the crisis. They were 224 women to answer a first questionnaire. Then, 178 have agreed to be contactéesde new to the study. As most of them come from families more affluent than average, this may colour the results.


“We can only imagine that the effects are greater on families moinsfortunées because they had fewer resources to cope with the crisis,” remarked dr. King.


Today, the team can count on up to sixty families to continue the tests.




With the intensification of extreme weather events, it is no doubt to the researchers that the impact of disasters such as the ice storm, forest fires or floods is expected to increase in the future. Which leads us to wonder about the lessons learned in 20 years.


“We demonstrate that these events cause long-term problems for children. But that is what is in place for the first responders to these crises in Canada ? Is it that there are measures to indicate that pregnant women are at risk, not for themselves, but for children ? It doesn’t exist, ” laments David Laplante.


Questioned by The Duty, the ministry of Health says that pregnant women are among the groups considered “vulnerable” during situations which present a potential danger or a high stress level.


But ” a consistent design can be applied to all [disaster / disasters] “, indicated Marie-Claude Lacasse, press secretary for the DHSS.


Some services (such as temporary housing or medical care particular) could be available to them, as they may be offered to other types of persons deemed to be vulnerable, ” says Lacasse.


The head of the scientific team on climate change and health at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), Céline Campagna, proposes that pregnant women and their unborn children are considered, from 2021 onwards, in the next guidelines of the action Plan on climate change.


Protect pregnant women


The results from Project Ice storm can be applied in situations of stress daily, believes Suzanne King.


“If a couple who wants to have a child may avoid things stressful, it is a good thing “, she suggests. A move should be done before the pregnancy or after the weaning of the baby, for example.


Ms. King also offers to protect pregnant women as possible. “Pregnant women should not have their feet in the waters of a flood, be in the process of work or to solve problems “, she advises.


The researcher says it is aware that it can be a stressful time for a pregnant woman to know the results of this research.


“It’s a trap “, grants-t-it. But since the Ice storm Project allows to distinguish between the effects of objective stress and subjective, it can be “déculpabilisant” for the mothers-to-be ; most of the effects on the physical and cognitive development of children due to the stress goal — so out of control — experienced by the mothers.


“I find it encouraging for women to know that if their child has B+ instead of A – school, this is not their fault. This is not because they have not been able to control their emotions during the ice storm. This is due to the number of days without electricity. These women do not have to feel guilty or weak because they have experienced distress. “


On the contrary, children whose mothers had “under-reacted” to the stress that they have experienced are those that go less well, according to several results.


“We should have a level of distress related to what happens to us. A reaction that is consistent with the level of difficulty seems to be the best thing, ” says Suzanne King.