Maternal-child adrenocortical attunement in early childhood: continuity and change

Dev Psychobiol. 2015 Jan;57(1):83-95. doi: 10.1002/dev.21266. Epub 2014 Nov 23.


This study evaluated continuity and change in maternal-child hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis attunement in early childhood. Participants were drawn from a prospective study of 1,292 mother-child dyads, which were racially diverse, predominantly low-income, and non-urban. Child focused stress tasks designed to elicit anger, fear, and frustration were administered during early infancy, later infancy, and toddlerhood. Mothers' and children's saliva samples (later assayed for cortisol) were collected before and after the tasks. The strength of mother-child adrenocortical attunement was conserved across infancy and toddlerhood. The magnitude of maternal-child adrenocortical attunement decreased in response to the child-focused stress tasks. Maternal sensitivity and the child's task-related emotional reactivity moderated adrenocortical attunement across the task, with greater maternal sensitivity during a free-play, and lower levels of child emotional reactivity during the stress tasks, stabilizing attunement from pre- to post-task levels. The findings advance our understanding of individual differences in the social regulation of adrenocortical activity in early childhood.

Keywords: HPA axis; adrenocortical; attunement; child behavior; cortisol; maternal behavior; mother-child.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations* / psychology
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Temperament / physiology


  • Hydrocortisone