The national research, published in Journal of the American Medical Association, comes amid other studies that have suggested a connection between stress from immigration-related policies and low birth weight as well as a study that looked at the effect of the 2016 election on preterm births for Latina mothers in New York City, the authors said. But no study has looked at the potential effect of the election on the Latina population nationwide.
The researchers, led by Dr. Alison Gemmill, assistant professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined the CDC-compiled birth certificate data of Latina women who delivered live births over an eight-and-half-year period.
The researchers first examined preterm births—those occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy— between Jan. 21, 2009 and Oct. 31, 2016, which coincided with the start of Barack Obama’s presidency up until about a week prior to the 2016 election.
Based on that data, the researchers predicted nearly 68,000 preterm births among Latina women would occur between Nov. 1, 2016 and July 31, 2017, which coincided with President Trump’s election and first six months of his administration. Instead, what occurred was 2,337 more premature births than predicted, about a 3 percent increase, the researchers said.
“That may sound like a small increase, but it’s actually pretty substantial,” Gemmill told ABC News. “Any time you see an abrupt shift in such a short amount of time at that magnitude, it’s definitely a signal that something is going on.”
The researchers said that they controlled for "potential concurrent but unrelated trends that might affect preterm birth" and "observed an increase in Latina preterm births over and above levels expected from preterm birth in the general population."
"Although the present study does not identify mechanisms underlying our findings, a growing body of evidence suggests that the circumstances surrounding the 2016 presidential election led to increased levels of psychosocial stress and anxiety among US immigrants and their coethnic family and community members," the authors wrote.
That something, Gemmill and colleagues argue, is Trump’s ascension to the White House. They theorized that pregnant Latina women developed fear and acute stress associated with Trump’s threat to reverse Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, order more ICE raids, deport undocumented immigrants and build a border wall.
On his sixth day in office,Trump issued an executive order, instructing for the “immediate construction” of a southern border wall and “prompt removal” of individuals whose legal claims to live in the U.S. have been rejected.
The CDC notes delivering a premature baby in the past, being pregnant with multiples, tobacco use and substance abuse, and short time between pregnancies as some risk factors of preterm births. But researchers have also drawn a connection between maternal stress and preterm births.
Premature births can be harmful, and the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of death or serious disability, according to the CDC. Preterm birth and low birth weight account for about 17 percent of infant deaths, and babies who survive can have breathing issues, digestive problems and bleeding on their brains. Long-term problems for premature children may include developmental delay (not meeting the developmental milestones for their age) and lower performance in school.
The current study is just one of many exploring spillover effects of the 2016 election. A study published last year suggests that 25 percent of young adults could develop PTSD as a result of stress stemming from the election.
A study published earlier this year noted a possible link between voter preference for Trump and bullying in middle schools, though another recent study shown that white Americans' expressed anti-black and anti-Hispanic prejudice had actually declined after the 2016 campaign and election.
“We can’t say these things for sure,” she said. “We can’t say X causes Y, but it’s suggestive evidence, and similar studies that are coming out are all kind of pointing to the same story.”
The researchers noted some limitations in the study. Due to data limitations, for example, they were not able to disaggregate births to Latina mothers by where they were born. They say because foreign-born Latina women have a lower risk for preterm birth than their U.S.-born counterparts, a decrease in the number of foreign-born women among Latina women giving birth immediately after the election could have contributed to increases in preterm birth.
They also said that they were not able to study births in the Middle Eastern and North African populations, also affected by immigration policy, because of a lack of available data. And they say that other immigration-related actions in the wake of the election may have contributed to stress levels.
Gemmill is already looking to conduct a follow-up study.
“We stopped [collecting data] in July 2017. Obviously, it’s been two years since then, and there’s been a lot of things that have happened since then in terms of anti-immigrant rhetoric and families being separated at the border, so I think in the future we’re going to see if this trend is continuing or worsening.”