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The implications of the biologically active elements in milk for the mammalian infant are largely unknown. Animal models demonstrate that transmission of glucocorticoids through milk influences behavior and modifies brain development in offspring. The aim of this study was to determine the relation between human milk cortisol levels and temperament of the breastfed infant. Fifty-two mother and infant pairs participated when the infants were three-months old. Milk cortisol levels were assessed and each mother completed the Infant Behavior Questionnaire (IBQ), a widely used parent-report measure of infant temperament. Analyses revealed a positive association between milk cortisol and the negative affectivity dimension of the IBQ (partial r = .37, p < .01). No correlation was found between elevated cortisol levels and the surgency/extraversion or the orienting/regulation dimensions. Further, the positive association between increased maternal milk cortisol and negative affectivity was present among girls (β = .59, p < .01), but not among boys. (Although, the sex by milk cortisol interaction term was not statistically significant, suggesting that these results require replication.) Environmental factors such as maternal demographics and negative maternal affect (depression and perceived stress) at the time of assessment did not account for the positive association. The findings support the proposal that exposure to elevated levels of cortisol in human milk influences infant temperament. The findings further suggest that mothers have the ability to shape offspring phenotype through the transmission of biologically active components in milk.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Psychoneuroendocrinology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, volume 38, issue 7, in 2013. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.11.002

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