, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 1473–1491 | Cite as

The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment

  • Florencia TorcheEmail author


A growing body of research highlights that in utero conditions are consequential for individual outcomes throughout the life cycle, but research assessing causal processes is scarce. This article examines the effect of one such condition—prenatal maternal stress—on birth weight, an early outcome shown to affect cognitive, educational, and socioeconomic attainment later in life. Exploiting a major earthquake as a source of acute stress and using a difference-in-difference methodology, I find that maternal exposure to stress results in a significant decline in birth weight and an increase in the proportion of low birth weight. This effect is focused on the first trimester of gestation, and it is mediated by reduced gestational age rather than by factors affecting the intrauterine growth of term infants. The findings highlight the relevance of understanding the early emergence of unequal outcomes and of investing in maternal well-being since the onset of pregnancy.


Stress Birth weight Gestational age Preterm birth Natural experiment 



Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation (SES-1023841). The motivation and original idea for this article emerged from conversations with Donald Treiman, to whom I am greatly indebted. I am grateful to Rajeev Dehejia, Thomas DiPrete, Ghislaine Echevarria, Catterina Ferreccio, Juho Harkonen, Eric Klinenberg, Gina Lovasi, Nicole Marwell, Catherine Monk, Patrick Sharkey, Shige Song, Julien Teitler, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. I would like to thank Danuta Raj, head of the Department of Statistics at the Ministry of Health Chile and her team for providing the Chilean birth registry data and for kindly addressing my multiple questions. I am also grateful to Manuel Dinamarca, from the Chilean National Emergency Office (ONEMI), for providing information about earthquake intensity by county. Mauricio Bucca and Emily Rauscher provided excellent research assistance.


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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