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Stress. 2005 Mar;8(1):19-34.

Measuring stress responses in postpartum mothers: perspectives from studies in human and animal populations.

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Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Hospital Research Center, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


Reduced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses to stress during the last week of pregnancy and lactation have been consistently observed in rat studies. Several contributing factors have been proposed for this phenomenon in lactation, including the suckling stimulus from the pups, hormones (oxytocin and prolactin) and opioids, a decrease in the ability of noradrenaline to potentiate hypothalamic responses and changes in pituitary responsiveness to ACTH secretagogues (AVP and CRF). In contrast to this vast literature using the rat model, only few studies have addressed this issue in the human population. The consensus is that women engaging in breastfeeding activities exhibit reduced anxiety, although the reductions in neuroendocrine and autonomic responses to stressors are variable, in part because of the different nature of the stressors used. Further work is required to investigate how additional factors, such as maternal parity or emotional salience of the stressor can affect stress responsiveness in postpartum women. Here, we review first the findings regarding stress responsiveness during lactation in both rat and human studies, and then discuss potential research avenues and methodological issues that could be the lead to future research protocols in human subjects. Knowing the reciprocal relationship in the mother-infant dyad, it is clear that investigation of the mechanisms regulating stress responses and mental health in postpartum mothers can only be beneficial to the development of the infant.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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