Dampening of the Cortisol Response to Handling at 3 Months in Human Infants and Its Relation to Sleep, Circadian Cortisol Activity, and Behavioral Distress

Dev Psychobiol. 1998 Dec;33(4):327-37.


The decrease in responsiveness of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system is marked over the first months of life. Seventy-eight healthy infants (44 girls), 7 to 15 weeks old, were given a laboratory mock physical examination. Salivary cortisol samples were collected pre- and postexamination and at home. Behavioral state during the examination and home sleep/wake activity were measured. Subjects younger than 11 weeks showed an increase in pre- to postexamination cortisol, while older subjects did not. Further, there was no decrease in behavioral distress to the examination with age. Infants who showed an early- morning peak (EMP) in home cortisol levels were significantly older and were likely to be those who slept through the night. However, the presence of an EMP was not associated with a lack of cortisol response to the examination. The decrease in cortisol responsiveness witnessed around the age of 3 months is presumably due to other processes associated with age, and not with the expression of the day-night rhythm in basal cortisol.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Crying / physiology
  • Female
  • Handling, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Sleep / physiology*


  • Hydrocortisone