Psychobiological influences on maternal sensitivity in the context of adversity

Dev Psychol. 2016 Jul;52(7):1073-87. doi: 10.1037/dev0000123.


This study evaluated prospective longitudinal relations among an index of poverty-related cumulative risk, maternal salivary cortisol, child negative affect, and maternal sensitivity across the first 2 postpartum years. Participants included 1,180 biological mothers residing in rural and predominantly low-income communities in the United States. Multilevel growth curve analyses indicated that an index of cumulative risk was positively associated with maternal cortisol across the postpartum (study visits occurring at approximately 7, 15, and 24 months postpartum) over and above effects for African American ethnicity, time of day of saliva collection, age, parity status, having given birth to another child, contraceptive use, tobacco smoking, body mass index, and breastfeeding. Consistent with a psychobiological theory of mothering, maternal salivary cortisol was negatively associated with maternal sensitivity observed during parent-child interactions across the first 2 postpartum years over and above effects for poverty-related cumulative risk, child negative affect, as well as a large number of covariates associated with cortisol and maternal sensitivity. Child negative affect expressed during parent-child interactions was negatively associated with observed maternal sensitivity at late (24 months) but not early time points of observation (7 months) and cumulative risk was negatively associated with maternal sensitivity across the postpartum and this effect strengthened over time. Results advance our understanding of the dynamic, transactional, and psychobiological influences on parental caregiving behaviors across the first 2 postpartum years. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • North Carolina
  • Parenting / psychology
  • Pennsylvania
  • Play and Playthings / psychology
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Rural Population
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone