Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is associated with poor physical and mental health. Early-life adversity may dysregulate cortisol response to subsequent stress. This study examines the association between patterns of maternal behavior and infant stress response to a challenge. Specifically, we test whether infant exposure to unpredictable maternal sensory signals is related to the cortisol response to a painful stressor.
Participants were 102 mothers and their children enrolled in a longitudinal study. Patterns of maternal sensory signals were evaluated at 6 and 12 months during a 10-min mother–infant play episode. Entropy rate was calculated as a quantitative measure of the degree of unpredictability of maternal sensory signals (visual, auditory, and tactile) exhibited during the play episode. Infant saliva samples were collected for cortisol analysis before and after inoculation at 12 months.
Unpredictable patterns of maternal sensory signals were associated with a blunted infant cortisol response to a painful stressor. This relation persisted after evaluation of covariates including maternal sensitivity and maternal psychological distress.
This study provides evidence that unpredictable patterns of maternal sensory signals are one process through which caregiving affects the function of infant stress response systems.
Noroña-Zhou, A. N., Morgan, A., Glynn, L. M., Sandman, C. A., Baram, T. Z., Stern, H. S., & Davis, E. P. (2020). Unpredictable maternal behavior is associated with a blunted infant cortisol response. Developmental Psychobiology, 62(6), 882–888. https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.21964