Salivary cortisol reactivity in preschoolers is associated with hair cortisol and behavioral problems.Stress. 2018 01; 21(1):28-35.S
The interplay between children's cortisol reactivity to challenge and cumulative cortisol exposure is not well understood. Examining the role of cortisol reactivity in early childhood may elucidate biological mechanisms that contribute to children's chronic physiological stress and behavioral dysregulation. In a sample of 65 preschool-aged children, we examined the relation between children's salivary cortisol reactivity to challenging tasks and their hair cortisol concentration (HCC). While both are biomarkers of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, salivary cortisol reactivity reflects an acute cortisol response to a stressor and HCC reflects cumulative cortisol exposure. In addition, we examined the relations of these stress biomarkers with internalizing and externalizing problems. Salivary cortisol reactivity was associated with higher HCC and with increased externalizing behaviors. Child HCC also was positively correlated with parent HCC. Results highlight the contributions of salivary cortisol reactivity to children's cumulative cortisol exposure, which may add to their biological risk for health problems later. The observed association between externalizing problems and salivary cortisol reactivity indicates concordances between dysregulated behavioral reactions and dysregulated cortisol responses to challenges. The finding that salivary cortisol reactivity to challenge in early childhood plays a role in children's cumulative cortisol exposure and behavioral development suggests pathways through which cortisol reactivity may influence long-term physical and mental health.