The impact of maternal childhood abuse on maternal and infant HPA axis function in the postpartum period

Sarah R. Brand, Patricia A. Brennan, D. Jeffrey Newport, Alicia K. Smith, Tamara Weiss, Zachary N. Stowe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Background: Early life trauma, particularly child abuse, has been associated with aberrations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning in adulthood. However, the relationship of early abuse and later adult neuroendocrine changes may be moderated by additional factors such as comorbid psychopathology and recent life stress. Parental exposure to child abuse may have transgenerational effects, with offspring of abuse victims showing similar neuroendocrine profiles as their mothers. The majority of previous studies in this area focus on adult offspring, and the degree to which the effects of parental child abuse can be detected earlier in the development of the offspring remains obscure. Methods: The current study utilized a clinical sample of women with a history of MDD (N= 126), to examine the effects of maternal early life sexual and physical abuse (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ)) on both maternal and infant salivary cortisol levels during a laboratory stress paradigm at 6 months postpartum. Results: Maternal child abuse was associated with steeper declines in cortisol in the mothers and lower baseline cortisol in their infants. Comorbid maternal PTSD, current maternal depressive symptoms, and recent life stressors were significant moderators of maternal cortisol change. Maternal abuse history was associated with increases in cortisol levels in those mothers who experienced these additional stressors. Similarly, a history of early maternal abuse and comorbid PTSD was associated with greater increases in infant cortisol levels. Conclusions: Maternal childhood abuse was associated with HPA axis function in both the mother and the infant during the postpartum period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)686-693
Number of pages8
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • Child
  • Cortisol
  • Depression
  • Early life stress
  • HPA axis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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