Low Cortisol in Babies

Updated February 21, 2017

The appropriate level of cortisol in babies is highly researched with changing treatments. Cortisol is mostly commonly associated with stress and doctors often find the cortisol value to determine stress in babies. Recent studies question hydrocortisone therapy, a common treatment in leveling cortisol levels. Doctors now look at babies' cortisol levels during and immediately after birth for possible treatments.


Cortisol is a "corticosteroid hormone pumped out by the adrenal glands as part of a body's fight-or-flight response to stress," according to Science Daily. Cortisol raises blood pressure and sugar levels when the body needs energy. Its highest levels are in the morning, while its lowest levels are at bedtime.


Science Daily reports that a new study of young children living in extreme poverty found that those whose mothers showed symptoms of depression had low levels of cortisol, a hormone activated during times of stress, compared with children whose mothers did not exhibit depressive symptoms.

Researchers concluded that for all children in the study, "higher maternal scores on the depression screening tool were linked to the youngsters' lower overall cortisol levels."


Research done by the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology examined cortisol levels in newborns. Method of delivery affects cortisol levels. Cord blood cortisol values were significantly different in monitored groups, including forceps, normal vaginal and cesarean deliveries. The forceps group had the highest cortisol values and the caesarean group the lowest cortisol values; both were different from the normal vaginal delivery group. "There was no effect of length of labour, or method of pain relief on cortisol levels. Maternal values were similar in the different groups, confirming that the differences observed derived from the fetus."


According to Science Daily, depressed levels of cortisol have been seen "in studies of neglected children in Romanian orphanages and preschoolers who experienced repeated bouts of foster care beginning in infancy." The low levels of cortisol in babies predict problems when older. "The few studies that have been done suggest a link between low cortisol levels in children and disruptive behavior disorders, including aggression."

Expert Insight

The way doctors think of low cortisol levels in babies is changing, according to a report published by PSYCHORG. A multicenter study led by Johns Hopkins Children's Center found that low cortisol levels are not even necessarily harmful.

This study may change the clinical meaning of low cortisol levels in preemies, "showing that contrary to common belief, low blood concentrations of this hormone do not put extremely low-birth-weight babies (those born weighing less than 2.2 pounds) at higher risk for retinopathy of prematurity," a potentially blinding eye condition.

"We were intrigued and somewhat surprised, but contrary to what we expected, low cortisol levels do not appear to be dangerous and may actually be the norm in premature babies," said study lead investigator Susan Aucott, M.D., a neonatologist at Hopkins Children's. "What this means is we should really think twice before rushing to treatment with hydrocortisone in our effort to 'correct' these low levels."

While surprising, the findings are not entirely counterintuitive, investigators say, because in utero babies have naturally low cortisol levels. "This may mean that, in a way, low cortisol levels are normal, and premature babies maintain them low, as they would have been in the womb."

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