The effect of maternal childhood maltreatment on postpartum mother–child bonding and maternal hair glucocorticoids

Background: Maternal experiences of childhood maltreatment (CM) constitute a risk factor for impairments in the mother–child relationship. One mechanism underlying this intergenerational transmission may be maternal hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis dysregulation. Yet, few studies have examined different maltreatment subtypes, including emotional neglect, considered concurrent depressive symptoms, and used long-term integrated glucocorticoid measures.

Objective: This study aimed to investigate associations between maternal CM history, postpartum glucocorticoids in hair, and mother–child bonding. In exploratory analyses, we tested whether specific subtypes of CM had differential implications for glucocorticoid secretion and bonding.

Methods: During pregnancy, N =269 mothers from the prospective cohort study DREAMHAIR provided retrospective information on CM and current information regarding psychological and hair-related variables. Hair samples were collected 8 weeks after delivery for quantification of maternal long-term hair cortisol and cortisone concentrations in 2-cm scalp-near hair samples. Mother–child bonding was measured 8 weeks and 14 months after birth using the Postpartum Bonding Questionnaire.

Results: While bivariate correlations revealed significant associations of CM with bonding and hair cortisol, regression findings showed CM was associated with impaired bonding 8 weeks (overall CM trend-level; emotional neglect p = .038) and 14 months (emotional neglect trend level p = .041) after birth, however not after controlling for depressive symptoms at the time point of the outcome. In regression analyses, CM was not associated with maternal hair glucocorticoids 8 weeks postpartum. Maternal hair glucocorticoid concentrations were not related to mother–child bonding and did not mediate associations between CM and mother–child bonding.

Conclusion: Data tentatively suggest that mothers with CM experiences, in particular emotional neglect, may be at risk for suboptimal bonding to their child, however current depressive symptoms seem to be more important. Our data provide no evidence for a crucial role of glucocorticoid secretion, yet aetiological processes of long-term glucocorticoid secretion and bonding are complex and more severely affected samples should be examined.



  • Maternal childhood maltreatment experiences, in particular emotional neglect, were associated with impaired mother–child bonding postpartum, however not after considering current depressive symptoms.
  • While maternal childhood maltreatment correlated with maternal hair cortisol 8 weeks postpartum, this was not confirmed in regression analyses controlling for relevant confounders.
  • Maternal hair glucocorticoid concentrations were not associated with impaired mother–child bonding.
Luisa Bergunde, Marlene Karl, Miriam Borrmeister, Isabel Jaramillo, Victoria Weise, Judith T. Mack, Kerstin Weidner, Wei Gao, Susann Steudte-Schmiedgen & Susan Garthus-Niegel | 2024
In: European Journal of Psychotraumatology ; ISSN: 2000-8066 | 15 | 1 | march | 2317674
Child Abuse, Childhood Disorders, Depressive Disorders, Emotional States, Females, Neglect, Perinatal Trauma, Statistical Analysis