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Social buffering of the maternal and infant HPA axes: Mediation and moderation in the intergenerational transmission of adverse childhood experiences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2018

Jenna C. Thomas
University of Calgary
Nicole Letourneau
University of Calgary
Tavis S. Campbell
University of Calgary
Gerald F. Giesbrecht*
University of Calgary
Apron Study Team
University of Calgary
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Gerald F. Giesbrecht, Department of Pediatrics, University of Calgary, Child Development Center, #355, 3820–24 Ave., NW, Calgary, AB, Canada, T3B 2X9; E-mail:


Supportive social relationships can reduce both psychological and physiological responses to stressful experiences. Recently, studies have also assessed the potential for social relationships to buffer the intergenerational transmission of stress. The majority of these studies, however, have focussed on social learning as a mechanism responsible for the intergenerational transmission of stress. Evidence of biological mechanisms is lacking. The objective of the current study was, therefore, to determine whether the association between maternal adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis function is mediated by maternal HPA axis function during pregnancy and moderated by social support. Data were from 243 mother–infant dyads enrolled in a prospective longitudinal cohort (the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition Study). Maternal history of ACEs was retrospectively assessed while maternal perceived social support and salivary cortisol were assessed prospectively at 6–22 weeks gestation (Time 1) and 27–37 weeks gestation (Time 2), and infant cortisol reactivity to a laboratory stressor and maternal perceived social support were assessed at 5–10 months postnatal (Time 3). Results revealed that maternal HPA axis function during pregnancy mediated the effects of maternal ACEs on infant HPA axis reactivity, suggesting that the maternal HPA axis is a mechanism by which maternal early life stress is transmitted to offspring. Furthermore, social support in the prenatal and postnatal periods moderated the cascade from maternal ACEs to infant HPA axis reactivity. Specifically, prenatal social support moderated the association between ACEs and maternal HPA axis function during pregnancy, and postnatal social support moderated the association between maternal HPA axis function and infant cortisol reactivity. These findings highlight the social sensitivity of the HPA axis and suggest the utility of social relationships as an intervention target to reduce the effects of maternal early life stress on infant outcomes.

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Social buffering of the maternal and infant HPA axes: Mediation and moderation in the intergenerational transmission of adverse childhood experiences
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