Maternal sensitivity and infant and mother adrenocortical function across challenges Journal Articles uri icon

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  • Findings regarding associations between maternal sensitivity and infant and mother adrenocortical function have been inconsistent. Nor have studies addressed the issue of intra-individual, between-challenge cortisol variability in the context of maternal sensitivity. In this study, we combine several design features aimed at sensitizing analyses to these issues. Cortisol secretion of 297 infants and their mothers was assessed in response to different challenges at 16 and 17 months. Extensive, structured observations of maternal sensitivity were conducted at infant age 16 months. Data were analyzed with multilevel modeling using an actor-partner interdependence model. We found that maternal sensitivity was related to infant, but not maternal, cortisol levels and also to infant-mother cortisol attunement. Infants of more sensitive mothers, as compared to infants of less sensitive mothers, showed greater cortisol variability across challenges, with relatively steep cortisol decreases and increases, depending on challenge. Mother and infant cortisol levels were highly correlated and this attunement was higher among dyads with more sensitive mothers than among dyads with less sensitive mothers. The results show nuanced attunement in a low-risk sample, with the infants of higher sensitivity mothers showing greater intra-individual variability across challenges. High cortisol response variability across challenges may simultaneously permit adaptation to threat and protect the infant from overexposure to corticosteroids.


  • Atkinson, Leslie
  • Gonzalez, Andrea
  • Kashy, Deborah A
  • Santo Basile, Vincenzo
  • Masellis, Mario
  • Pereira, Jessica
  • Chisholm, Vivienne
  • Levitan, Robert

publication date

  • December 2013

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