Maternal Influence on Child HPA Axis: A Prospective Study of Cortisol Levels in Hair
OBJECTIVE: To investigate cortisol concentrations in hair as biomarker of prolonged stress in young children and their mothers and the relation to perinatal and sociodemographic factors.
METHODS: Prospective cohort study of 100 All Babies In Southeast Sweden study participants with repeated measures at 1, 3, 5, and 8 years and their mothers during pregnancy. Prolonged stress levels were assessed through cortisol in hair. A questionnaire covered perinatal and sociodemographic factors during the child’s first year of life.
RESULTS: Maternal hair cortisol during the second and third trimester and child hair cortisol at year 1 and 3 correlated. Child cortisol in hair levels decreased over time and correlated to each succeeding age, between years 1 and 3 (r = 0.30, P = .002), 3 and 5 (r = 0.39, P < .001), and 5 and 8 (r = 0.44, P < .001). Repeated measures gave a significant linear association over time (P < .001). There was an association between high levels of hair cortisol and birth weight (β = .224, P = .020), nonappropriate size for gestational age (β = .231, P = .017), and living in an apartment compared with a house (β = .200, P = .049). In addition, we found high levels of cortisol in hair related to other factors associated with psychosocial stress exposure.
CONCLUSIONS: Correlation between hair cortisol levels in mothers and their children suggests a heritable trait or maternal calibration of the child’s hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis. Cortisol output gradually stabilizes and seems to have a stable trait. Cortisol concentration in hair has the potential to become a biomarker of prolonged stress, especially applicable as a noninvasive method when studying how stress influences children’s health.
- ANOVA —
- analysis of variance
- HPA —
- IQR —
- interquartile range
- Accepted August 14, 2013.
- Copyright © 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics