Taking stress response out of the box: Stability, discontinuity, and temperament effects on HPA and SNS across social stressors in mother-infant dyads

Heidemarie K. Laurent, Jennifer C. Ablow, Jeffrey Measelle

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This study investigated continuity and stability of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response measures in mother-infant dyads across 2 different types of social stress sessions. Synchrony of response trajectories across systems (SNS-HPA coordination) and partners (mother-infant attunement) was addressed, as were associations with infant temperament. Primiparous mothers and their 18-month-old infants (n = 86 dyads) completed an attachment stressor-Strange Situation (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978)-at Session 1 and challenge stressors- cleanup task and emotion task battery-at Session 2. Mother and infant saliva samples collected to index pre-stress, stress, and post-stress response during each session were assayed for cortisol (HPA marker) and salivary alpha-amylase (sAA; SNS marker). Multilevel modeling of cortisol/sAA trajectories across sessions revealed rank-order stability in mother/infant stress measures but discontinuity in absolute levels; cortisol trajectories were higher during attachment stress, and sAA trajectories were higher during challenge stress. Varying degrees of mother-infant attunement were found across sessions/systems. Infant surgency predicted higher stress measures, and negative affect and effortful control predicted lower stress measures, though associations depended on session/system. Findings are discussed in terms of advancing a multisystemic, contextual definition of developing stress responsiveness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)35-45
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies

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