Research Article| Volume 66, P184-190, September 2022

Relationships among caregiving, stress, and self-regulation in toddlers living in poverty


      • We tested toddlers' stress hormones and self-regulation responses to adversity.
      • The sample comprised 94 mothers and toddlers living in poverty in the United States.
      • Toddler stress did not mediate parental caregiving and child self-regulation.
      • Toddlers had better soothability if mothers were more emotionally supportive.



      The Developmental Psychobiological Model of Experiential Canalization (DPMEC) proposes that conditions of poverty-related adversity influence child self-regulation through parental caregiving, stress hormones, and the child's genetics. However, empirical findings investigating these relationships with prolonged stress hormones are mixed. Further, the relationships among conditions of adversity with prolonged stress hormones have seldom been investigated in toddlers living in poverty. Guided by the DPMEC, we examined the relationships among maternal caregiving, prolonged stress, and self-regulation in toddlers living in poverty in the United States, to include examining whether toddler prolonged stress mediated relations between maternal caregiving and child self-regulation.

      Design and methods

      Participants were mothers and toddlers (20 to 24 months of age) living in poverty, who provided hair samples to measure four months of average cortisol concentration to estimate prolonged stress. We used observational measures to examine maternal caregiving and indirect report to measure children's self-regulation.


      Findings did not support the role of toddler prolonged stress in mediating the relationship between maternal caregiving and toddler self-regulation. However, multiple linear regression models showed that higher levels of maternal emotionally supportive caregiving significantly predicted better toddler soothability (b = 0.90; p = .03; 95% CI [0.10, 1.69]; partial correlation = 0.26).


      This study adds partial support for the DPMEC to represent associations between maternal caregiving and toddler self-regulation for mothers and toddlers experiencing poverty.

      Practice implications

      While these data come from an observational study, pediatric nurses may consider assessing maternal supportive caregiving upon reports of poor toddler soothability.


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