In the Child Health & Development Lab, we study factors that influence cortisol patterns and reactivity in early childhood, including factors within the child and those in their caregiving environments. We also explore the influence individual differences in cortisol patterns and reactivity during early childhood might have for later development.

Project Highlights

BEST Extension

Our BEST (Buffering Environmental Stress Together) study investigates the role of parental support in buffering infants and toddlers from early stressful experiences. This extension will allow us to conduct neuroimaging of adolescent and young adult mothers who have experienced significant adversity.

Identifying Risk and Protective Factors for Refugee Children

Our lab is conducting an applied research study with Syrian and Iraqi families who have resettled in the Denver area. We are examining how differences in pre-migration adversity affect current mental health, acculturation and stress system functioning.

Our Current Research

  • Levers for Modifying Risk Trajectories

    Our lab is utilizing several national data sets on early care and education to identify how to best support at-risk children's development. The study will identify early risk profiles, examine the effect of those profiles on later child outcomes, and assess the potential modifying role of maternal and child care characteristics on later child outcomes.

  • BEST: Buffering Environmental Stress Together

    Our lab is one of six sites nationwide investigating the role of parental support in buffering infants and toddlers from early stressful experiences. The study will examine stress reactivity, stress system functioning and health across early development in Early Head Start families.

  • Genetic & Environmental Risk, Cortisol Patterning & Longer Term Outcomes

    We are currently following a pilot sample of families who participated in previous studies to examine links between genetic and environmental risk, stress reactivity in early childhood, and physical and mental health through 3rd grade.

  • Cortisol Patterning & Reactivity in Children of Immigrants

    We are currently examining cortisol patterns and stress reactivity among children of immigrants from Mexico as compared to Hispanic-American children whose parents were both born in the U.S. Preliminary data suggests that children of Mexican immigrants may have a steeper (and healthier) cortisol profile at home, but may be more likely to show rising cortisol across the day at child care and in response to a stressor.

    Upcoming publication: Watamura, S. E., Mendoza, M. M., & Badanes, L. S. (in preparation). Differential basal and stress reactivity cortisol in Hispanic-American children as related to mothers country of origin.

  • Cortisol Patterns, Reactivity & Internalizing Symptoms

    In recent work we have found increased internalizing symptoms among children with low basal and stress reactive cortisol. Here are two publications that emerged from this work:

    Hankin, B. L., Badanes, L. S., Abuela, J., & Watamura, S. E. (2010).Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis dysregulation in dysphoric children and adolescents: Cortisol reactivity to psychosocial stress from preschool through middle adolescence. Biological Psychiatry,68(5), 484-490.

    Badanes, L. S., Watamura, S. E., & Hankin, B. L. (2011). Hypocortisolism as a potential marker of allostatic load in children: Associations with family risk and internalizing disorders. Development & Psychopathology, 23, 881-896.*First and second authors contributed equally.

  • Child Care & Cortisol Patterns

    In a number of studies, we have examined cortisol patterning at child care as compared to at home. We have found consistent associations between quality of child care and the proportion of children that show a rising cortisol pattern at child care (as compared to the falling pattern at home).

    We have also found a developmental sequence such that children in the late toddler and early preschool period seem to be the most likely to show rising cortisol at child care as compared to infants or after age 5. Most recently, we have found an association between higher cortisol at child care and lower antibody levels on the subsequent weekend.

    Here are publications that emerged from this work:

    Badanes, L. S., Dmitrieva, J., & Watamura, S. E. (2012).Understanding cortisol reactivity across the day at childcare: The potential buffering role of secure attachment to teacher. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(1), 156-165.

    Watamura, S. E., Coe, C. L., Laudenslager, M. L., & Robertson, S. S. (2010). Effect of child care on salivary cortisol, sIgA, and specific antibody secretion in young children. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

    Watamura, S. E., Kryzer, E. M., & Robertson, S.S. (2009). Cortisol patterns at home and child care: Afternoon differences and evening recovery in children attending very high quality full-day center-based child care. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30(4) 475-485.

    Watamura, S. E., Donzella, B., Alwin, J., & Gunnar, M. R.(2003). Morning to afternoon increases in cortisol concentrations for infants and toddlers at child care: Age differences and behavioral correlates. Child Development, 74(4), 1006-1020.

    Watamura, S. E., Sebanc, A. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2002). Rising cortisol at childcare: Relations with nap, rest and temperament. Developmental Psychobiology, 40, 33-42.

    Dettling, A. C., Parker, S. W., Lane, S., Sebanc, A., & Gunnar, M. R. (2000). Quality of care and temperament determine changes in cortisol concentrations over the day for young children in childcare. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 25, 819-836.

  • Development of Basak Cortisol Rhythms at Home

    In two studies, we have examined development of basal cortisol rhythms at home for children between 12 and 72 months. Through 30 months, most children are still showing a flat pattern of cortisol production across the mid-portion of the day. Children who were 30 or 36 months and giving up their afternoon naps were showing the more mature decline mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Children exhibit the mature decline mid-morning to mid-afternoon consistently from 36 months on. We also found that children who sleep atypically for their age (substantially more or less than their peers) make more errors on tasks requiring attention and inhibition. Children also slow a robust cortisol awakening response in the morning and after a morning or afternoon nap.

    Here are publications that emerged from this work:

    Gribbin, C., Watamura, S. E., Cairns, A., Harsh, J. R., & LeBourgeois, M. K (2011). The cortisol awakening response in 2-4 year-old children: Effects of acute nighttime sleep restriction, wake time and daytime napping. Developmental Psychobiology. doi: 10.1002/dev.20599

    Watamura, Badanes, LeBourgeois, & Ellsworth (in preparation). Developmental changes in sleep and baseline cortisol activity from 30 to 72 months.

    Watamura, S. E., Donzella, B., Kertes, D., & Gunnar, M. R. (2004). Developmental changes in baseline cortisol activity in early childhood: Relations with napping and effortful control. Developmental Psychobiology, 45(3), 125-133.

Denver campus, aerial view.

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