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Family, Home, and Social Sciences

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Publication Date


First Faculty Advisor

J. Dee Higley

First Faculty Reader

Shawn Gale

Honors Coordinator

Bruce Brown


early risk, maternal sensitivity, mother-infant relationship, parenting style, plasma cortisol, stress reactivity


Few studies have longitudinally assessed the relationship between infant stress reactivity and future parenting styles. Stress-induced plasma cortisol concentrations are stable over development and can be utilized as a marker for stress reactivity. This study investigates the relationship between stress-induced plasma cortisol concentrations in infancy and later parenting behavior in a translational nonhuman primate model. We hypothesized that higher stress-induced cortisol levels in infancy would predict impairments in maternal behaviors in adulthood. Subjects were rhesus macaque females (N=122; Macaca mulatta), assessed as infants and again as mothers. At three-to-four months of age, subjects underwent a standardized BioBehavioral Assessment during which blood samples were obtained and behavioral inhibition was assessed. Approximately seven years later, subjects were observed as they interacted with their own offspring for four 300-second sessions. Results showed subjects’ stress-induced cortisol concentrations and whether they exhibited behavioral inhibition as infants predicted later maternal behavior, with high cortisol concentrations and behavioral inhibition predicting high rates of offspring approaches and leaves and low rates of maternal cradling. Results also showed higher stress-induced cortisol concentrations in infancy predicted higher scores on the Brown Index, an indication that the subjects’ offspring instigated changes in proximity. Taken together, these results suggest that higher stress-induced cortisol concentrations and behavioral inhibition at three-to-four months of age are a risk factor for engaging in less sensitive parenting behaviors as adults. To the extent these findings generalize to humans, they suggest a link between stress-induced cortisol concentrations and behavioral inhibition in infancy and parenting behavior later in life.


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