The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a blizzard cause a baby boom? A Buffalo hospital says yes, but statisticians aren’t so sure

In this photo taken Aug 11, Stephanie and Jason Brueggeman hold their newborn daughter at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo in New York, nine months after a “Snowvember” storm snowed them in. (Melanie Griffis/Mercy Hospital of Buffalo via AP)

This past November, a pair of freak snowstorms dumped a historic 70 inches of snow on the area around Buffalo, N.Y., in a matter of five days.

Now a Buffalo maternity ward is dealing with a different kind of blizzard. Officials at Mercy Hospital told the Associated Press they’ve seen a “mini baby boom,” as the AP described it, almost exactly nine months after the “Snowvember” storm.

You know, those nine months.

“Nowhere to go, nothing to do,” new parents Jason and Stephanie Brueggeman said of those chilly November days. Their daughter Grace Elizabeth was born this week, slightly ahead of the storm-induced rush.

Mercy Hospital is hardly the first to report certain, ahem, long-term reproductive effects from natural disasters. Ever since an unexpected uptick in births was reported in the wake of the great Northeast blackout of 1965, people have speculated about the phenomenon of blackout babies.

And blizzard babies.

And hurricane babies.

And even federal government shutdown babies.

The theory has a certain unshakable logic to it. There you are, two adults, trapped in the same home. The lights are off, there’s nowhere to go, the TV may or may not be functional. The prospect of impending catastrophe — be it environmental or fiscal — lends a pre-apocalyptic sense of urgency to the proceedings. Things happen.

It’s enough to convince hospital officials, who seem unsurprised when their schedules become suddenly busy nine months later.

Mary Ann Murphy, the head of maternity services at Mercy, told the AP that she warned her nurse manager several months ago that they better buy more cribs for the ward. The hospital is on track to deliver 250 babies in August, a 25 percent increase from their monthly average.

Several New York hospitals told the New York Times they saw a similar increase the summer after Hurricane Sandy shut down much of the city for several days in 2012.

“There’s definitely an uptick,” said Dr. Jacques Moritz, director of the division of gynecology at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. “This is just old basic physiology. There’s no Internet and no cable. What else is there to do?”

Here in Washington, we have our own special variation on the disaster baby boom: furlough fertility. It’s what happens after the government shuts down for 16 days, as it did in October 2013, leaving federal employees with nothing to do but, well, you know.

[Is Washington in the midst of a post-shutdown baby boom?]

Like any good urban legend, the origin of this one is largely untraceable. After all, nurses and midwives have also thought for centuries that conception and births can be affected by the phase of the moon or changes in the weather. Why wouldn’t they also be linked to the likelihood of cabin fever?

But the first well-documented instance of disaster baby boom coverage was a 1966 New York Times article headlined “Births up 9 months after the blackout,” which reported 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. The reporter talked with several local sociologists and doctors who claimed with absolute certainty that the blackout was to blame.

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other,” one sociologist politely put it.

The blackout was a “great event” for sociologists, the article concluded, one that would certainly provide “a rich mine for behavioral, sociological and psychological discovery.”

Four years later, public health scholar J. Richard Udry took the Times up on the challenge. In a famous 1970 study in the journal Demography, he probed six years of the city’s population data and found no evidence of a post-blackout spike. In fact, the number of babies born in 1966 was lower than in two of the four previous years.

“It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantas[ize] that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation,” Udry mused, acknowledging that “a simple statistical analysis such as this” probably wouldn’t dissuade many people from indulging in that fantasy.

Rather than putting an end to the speculation about disaster-related births, Udry’s paper seemed to open the door to more of it. In the decades since, several other statisticians have taken a look at the issue, and they haven’t always reached the same conclusions.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Population Economics looked at a much larger sample size of data from 47 Atlantic and Gulf Coast counties over a period of six years. They found that low-severity hurricanes and tropical storms were associated with a modest upswing in birth rates, while more severe storms (like Hurricane Sandy, which killed 157 people in the U.S.) led to a decline in births nine months later.

The researchers also found, interestingly, that the phenomenon was much more apparent in couples who already had one child. This, in their words, suggests that “the elasticity of demand for children is relatively inelastic for first children but becomes more elastic after couples have their first child.”

Sorry second children, apparently you’re “elastic” commodities too-often conceived out of boredom during a storm.

But this finding matches what sociologists have said about the disaster baby boom theory: It’s unlikely for a natural (or Congress-made) disaster to suddenly drive couples to have unprotected sex. But if the disaster isn’t too disastrous, and the couples already have a child, well, what’s one more?

Of course, statistics aren’t the end-all-be-all. In a study from the 1930s often cited by statisticians looking to prove a point about correlation and causation, a researcher found a relationship between birth rates in Copenhagen and the number of storks nesting in the city. That doesn’t mean that babies are brought by storks.

No, the staff at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo would argue. They’re brought by blizzards.