Prenatal exposure to glucocorticoids is associated with alterations in fetal growth and endocrine function. However, few studies have examined the effects of clinically relevant doses of glucocorticoids on postnatal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function. To determine the effects of maternal or fetal betamethasone administration (0.5 mg/kg maternal or estimated fetal weight) on postnatal HPA function at 6 months and 1 year postnatal age, pregnant ewes were randomized into the following treatment groups: no treatment (n=6); maternal saline (n=6); single maternal betamethasone (M1) (n=6); repeated maternal betamethasone (M4) (n=6); fetal saline (n=5); single fetal betamethasone (n=6) and repeated fetal betamethasone (F4) (n=6). Single injections were given at 104 days of gestation and repeated injections at 104, 111, 118 and 125 days. Lambs were born spontaneously and the ACTH and cortisol responses to i.v. corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) (0.5 microg/kg) plus arginine vasopressin (AVP) (0.1 microg/kg) were measured at 6 months and 1 year postnatally. At 6 months postnatal age, neither maternal nor fetal prenatal betamethasone administration altered significantly the ACTH and cortisol responses to CRH+AVP. However, in animals at 1 year postnatal age, a previous single injection of betamethasone to the mother (M1) resulted in significantly elevated basal and stimulated cortisol levels (P<0.05), without significant change in the ACTH response. In contrast, betamethasone administration to the fetus resulted in significantly attenuated ACTH responses to CRH+AVP at 1 year compared with control animals (P<0.05), but these were not associated with any significant changes in basal or stimulated cortisol levels. All control animals exhibited a significant increase in peak ACTH responses to CRH+AVP between 6 months and 1 year postnatal age (P<0.05). After prenatal betamethasone (F4, M4) the difference in peak ACTH response between animals at 6 months and 1 year postnatal age was abolished. We conclude that in sheep between 6 months and 1 year postnatal age, HPA function undergoes developmental changes that are influenced by prenatal glucocorticoid exposure. Furthermore, the effects of glucocorticoid on postnatal HPA responses may vary according to the time in gestation that the steroid was administered, and whether it was given directly into the fetal or maternal compartment.