Maternal sensitivity and infant autonomic and endocrine stress responses

Early Hum Dev. 2014 Jul;90(7):377-85. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2014.04.007. Epub 2014 May 1.


Background: Early environmental exposures may help shape the development of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, influencing vulnerability for health problems across the lifespan. Little is known about the role of maternal sensitivity in influencing the development of the ANS in early life.

Aims: To examine associations among maternal sensitivity and infant behavioral distress and ANS and HPA axis reactivity to the Repeated Still-Face Paradigm (SFP-R), a dyadic stress task.

Study design: Observational repeated measures study.

Subjects: Thirty-five urban, sociodemographically diverse mothers and their 6-month-old infants.

Outcome measures: Changes in infant affective distress, heart rate, respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and T-wave amplitude (TWA) across episodes of the SFP-R were assessed. A measure of cortisol output (area under the curve) in the hour following cessation of the SFP-R was also obtained.

Results: Greater maternal insensitivity was associated with greater infant sympathetic activation (TWA) during periods of stress and tended to be associated with greater cortisol output following the SFP-R. There was also evidence for greater affective distress and less parasympathetic activation (RSA) during the SFP-R among infants of predominantly insensitive mothers.

Conclusions: Caregiving quality in early life may influence the responsiveness of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS as well as the HPA axis. Consideration of the ANS and HPA axis systems together provides a fuller representation of adaptive versus maladaptive stress responses. The findings highlight the importance of supporting high quality caregiving in the early years of life, which is likely to promote later health.

Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; HPA axis; Infant; Maternal sensitivity; Parasympathetic; Sympathetic.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / growth & development*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Infant
  • Mothers*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology


  • Hydrocortisone