Unlike children with normal cortisol patterns that peak early in the day and decrease steadily until bedtime, children in families facing adversity have cortisol levels that are constantly elevated.
According to a Stanford University study, high cortisol levels can decrease the size of the hippocampus—a brain structure important in memory processing and emotion. They are also linked to decreased immune function and high blood pressure.
More importantly, children with toxic cortisol levels are more likely to suffer from depression, PTSD, and anxiety; display antisocial behavior; and are at increased risk for drug and alcohol abuse.
Solving the problem
Surprisingly, the answer to infant and toddler cortisol regulation is not medication, but nurture.
Infant Brains on Fire:
The problem of toxic cortisol levels
A growing body of research on brain development connects adverse childhood experiences (ACES) to toxic levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which can have devastating effects on a young child’s growth and development—including cycles of behavior challenges, school struggles, and troubled adulthood.