The developing foetus makes adaptations to an adverse in utero environment which may lead to permanent changes in structure and physiology, thus 'programming' the foetus to risk of ill health in later life. Epidemiological studies have shown associations between low birth weight, a surrogate marker of an adverse intrauterine environment, and a range of diseases in adult life including cardiometabolic and psychiatric disease. These associations do not apply exclusively to low birth weight babies but also to newborns within the normal birth weight range. Early life stress, including stressors in the prenatal and early postnatal period, is a key factor that can have long-term effects on offspring health. Animal studies show this is mediated through changes in the maternal and foetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes resulting in foetal exposure to excess glucocorticoids. Data in humans are more limited but support that the biological effects of stress in utero may be transmitted through changes in glucocorticoid action or metabolism. Common contemporary physical and social stressors of maternal obesity and socio-economic deprivation impact on the maternal response to pregnancy and the prevailing hormonal milieu that the developing foetus will be exposed to. Prenatal stress may also be compounded by early postnatal stresses such as childhood maltreatment with resultant adverse effects for the offspring. Understanding of the mechanisms whereby these stressors are transmitted from mother to foetus will not only improve our knowledge of normal foetal development but will also help identify novel pathways for early intervention either in the periconceptional, pregnancy or the early postpartum period.