Well-controlled animal experiments suggest that induced maternal stress can influence the fetus in such a way that leaves it more susceptible to developmental delays and a lifetime of illness. Comparatively, little is known about the long-term effects of prenatal maternal stress on the development of the human fetus and child. Studying prenatal stress in humans presents many challenges, as it is highly unethical for researchers to randomly assign pregnant women to stress and non-stress conditions, as is commonly done with laboratory animals. As such, many prenatal maternal stress studies are limited by retrospective design, which ask women to recall stressors months or years past, a task that is largely dependent on a woman’s ability to accurately recall past information, or by assessing relatively moderate stressors, such as stress in relation to one’s occupation, family, or relationships. Such stressors are not classified as “independent stressors”.
SPIRAL is a program unlike any other in that it assesses maternal stress in populations of pregnant and post-partum women exposed to natural disasters, which are stress-inducing random events that affect pregnant women to varying degrees at various periods during pregnancy. In addition, SPIRAL encompasses studies which have had the opportunity to assess women before and after they were exposed to the natural disaster.