Associations between stress exposure and new mothers’ brain responses to infant cry sounds

Pilyoung Kim, Rebekah Tribble, Aviva K. Olsavsky, Alexander J. Dufford, Andrew Erhart, Melissa Hansen, Leah Grande, Daniel M. Gonzalez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Exposure to severe stress has been linked to negative postpartum outcomes among new mothers including mood disorders and harsh parenting. Non-human animal studies show that stress exposure disrupts the normative adaptation of the maternal brain, thus identifying a neurobiological mechanism by which stress can lead to negative maternal outcomes. However, little is known about the impact of stress exposure on the maternal brain response to infant cues in human mothers. We examined the association of stress exposure with brain response to infant cries and maternal behaviors, in a socioeconomically diverse (low- and middle-income) sample of first-time mothers (N=53). Exposure to stress across socioeconomic, environmental, and psychosocial domains was associated with reduced brain response to infant cry sounds in several regions, including the right insula/inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus. Reduced activation in these regions was further associated with lower maternal sensitivity observed during a mother–infant interaction. The findings demonstrate that higher levels of stress exposure may be associated with reduced brain response to an infant's cry in regions that are important for emotional and social information processing, and that reduced brain responses may further be associated with increased difficulties in developing positive mother–infant relationships.

Original languageEnglish
Article number117360
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020


  • Infant cry
  • Maternal brain
  • Maternal sensitivity
  • Neuroimaging
  • Stress


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