Parental Sensitivity Mediates the Sustained Effect of Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up on Cortisol in Middle Childhood: A Randomized Clinical Trial




Mallory Garnett, Kristin Bernard, Julie Hoye, Lindsay Zajac, and Mary Dozier

Brief Type

Journal Publication


  • Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC)


Importance: Parenting interventions have been found to normalize cortisol regulation among high-risk children early in development; it is important to investigate the sustainability of these effects and their mechanisms, given the maladaptive outcomes associated with cortisol dysregulation. Objective: To determine whether the Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) intervention, implemented in infancy, predicts cortisol regulation in middle childhood via changes in early parental sensitivity. Design: Double blind randomized clinical trial design; started January 2006, the follow-up for this project concluded March 2016. Setting: Parents of children under age 2 referred from child protective services agencies in a large, mid-Atlantic city. Participants: 103 parent-child dyads (45.6% female children) with histories of child protective services involvement, randomly assigned to receive ABC (n = 45) or a control intervention (n = 58); in infancy, the children’s ages ranged from 1.60 to 25.30 months (M = 9.87 months); at the middle childhood follow-up, they ranged from 8.0 to 11.0 years old (M = 8.52 years). Interventions: Both conditions included 10-week, in-home, manualized interventions. The experimental condition, ABC, has 3 primary targets for parents: increasing nurturance to child distress, increasing following the child’s lead, and decreasing frightening behavior. The control intervention, Developmental Education for Families (DEF), is an adaptation of a program focused on enhancing cognitive and language development. Main outcomes and measures: Parental sensitivity was coded from a semi-structured interaction task between the parent and child in early childhood. Middle childhood diurnal cortisol slopes were modeled by collecting salivary cortisol samples from children at wake-up and bedtime over the course of 3 consecutive days. Results: ABC participation in infancy was associated with increased parental sensitivity post-intervention, β=0.28, p=.004, and this increased sensitivity predicted steeper decline across the day in children’s cortisol concentration in middle childhood, β=−.53, p=.002. The indirect effect of ABC on cortisol regulation via sensitivity was significant, β=−0.15, p=.038. Conclusions and relevance: ABC has an indirect effect on middle childhood diurnal cortisol regulation via parental sensitivity; future research should seek to determine how this enhanced neurobiological regulation relates to children’s behavioral, socioemotional, and psychological outcomes. (author abstract)

Data Collection Methods

  • Parent-child observations



For More Information

Garnett, M., Bernard, K., Hoye, J., Zajac, L., & Dozier, M. (2020). Parental sensitivity mediates the sustained effect of Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up on cortisol in middle childhood: A randomized clinical trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology121, 104809. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.104809
Author Contact Information:
Mallory Garnett


  • Participant, Family, and Program Outcomes