Development of the cortisol circadian rhythm in the light of stress early in life.Psychoneuroendocrinology 2015; 62:292-300P
The secretion of the stress hormone cortisol follows a diurnal circadian rhythm. There are indications that this rhythm is affected by stress early in life. This paper addresses the development of the cortisol circadian rhythm between 1 and 6 years of age, and the role of maternal stress and anxiety early in the child's life on this (developing) rhythm. Participants were 193 healthy mother-child dyads from a community sample. Self-reported maternal stress and anxiety and physiological stress (saliva cortisol), were assessed prenatally (gestational week 37). Postnatally, self-reported maternal stress and anxiety were measured at 3, 6, 12, 30, and 72 months. Saliva cortisol samples from the children were collected on two days (four times each day) at 12, 30, and 72 months of age. The total amount of cortisol during the day and the cortisol decline over the day were determined to indicate children's cortisol circadian rhythm. Multilevel analyses showed that the total amount of cortisol decreased between 1 and 6 years. Furthermore, more maternal pregnancy-specific stress was related to higher total amounts of cortisol in the child. Higher levels of early postnatal maternal anxiety were associated with flatter cortisol declines in children. Higher levels of early postnatal maternal daily hassles were associated with steeper child cortisol declines over the day. These results indicated developmental change in children's cortisol secretion from 1 to 6 years and associations between maternal stress and anxiety early in children's lives and children's cortisol circadian rhythm in early childhood.