Scientific understanding of mother–infant HPA axis attunement has been limited by discrepant methods for assessing attunement that often conflate different levels of association. We sought to refine the conceptualization of attunement by investigating whether mother–infant cortisol attunement exists as coupling of response trajectories within an acute stress episode, separate from shared developmental patterns and/or overall dyadic similarity in cortisol levels, and whether the degree of attunement depends on within- or between-dyad differences in maternal risk and protective factors. We examined these questions using a longitudinal study with mother/infant salivary cortisol during dyadic stressors at 6, 12, and 18 months postnatal. A three-level hierarchical linear model showed that sample-wide associations between mother and infant cortisol were not significant at any level, suggesting normative lack of attunement; however, there was significant variability in degree of attunement across dyads. Concurrent levels of family resources and social support satisfaction predicted lower mother–infant cortisol attunement within the session, and overall (mean) parenting stress predicted the opposite. Follow-up analyses showed this was typically due to an increase in infants’ (but not their mothers’) within-session cortisol response slopes with increasing support and decreasing stress. Implications for the role of mother–infant cortisol attunement in intergenerational stress transmission are discussed.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Developmental Neuroscience
- Developmental Biology
- Behavioral Neuroscience