Do mothers’ biological responses to stress transfer to her child? This is a question addressed in a recently published study by Leah Hibel of UC Davis and Evelyn Mercado of UCLA. Though prior reports have shown that mothers help their children regulate distress through calming and soothing, there are few studies that examine the ways in which a mother facing stress might transmit stress to her child. This study shows that mothers transmit stress to their infants and that mothers’ emotions appear to play a role in this transmission.
This paper used an experimental design to examine mother-to-infant transmission of stress. Mothers were randomized to either have a positive or conflictual discussion with their marital partners, after which infants participated in a fear and frustration task. Saliva samples were collected to assess cortisol responses for both mothers and infants. Results indicated that maternal cortisol reactivity and recovery to the conflict (but not positive) discussion predicted infant cortisol reactivity to the infant challenge. These findings advance our understanding of the social and contextual regulation of adrenocortical activity in early childhood.