The influence of family relations, maternal occupational characteristics, and childcare utilization on preschool children's cortisol production were investigated in 56 mother-child dyads. Family characteristics and maternal employment, childcare and child temperament were reported by mothers. Morning and evening levels of children's salivary cortisol were obtained. Children in highly expressive or reserved families exhibited higher cortisol levels compared to children in moderately expressive families. Elevated levels of cortisol were detected in children of mothers reporting low levels of job role quality or high levels of emotional exhaustion. Frequent childcare use was found to protect children against the physiological effects of low maternal job role quality and emotional exhaustion. Findings underscore the pervasive role of the family as set within an external support system and highlight the potential physiological impact of these interacting contexts for children. Further research is needed to fully understand current findings and to develop appropriate psycho-physiological interventions. (C) 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.