Epidemiological findings and experimental studies in animals have shown that individual tissues and whole organ systems can be programmed in utero during critical periods of development with adverse consequences for their function in later life. Detailed morphometric analyses of the data have shown that certain patterns of intrauterine growth, particularly growth retardation, can be related to specific postnatal outcomes. Since hormones regulate fetal growth and the development of individual fetal tissues, they have a central role in intrauterine programming. Hormones such as insulin, insulin-like growth factors, thyroxine and the glucocorticoids act as nutritional and maturational signals and adapt fetal development to prevailing intrauterine conditions, thereby maximizing the chances of survival both in utero and at birth. However, these adaptations may have long-term sequelae. Of the hormones known to control fetal development, it is the glucocorticoids that are most likely to cause tissue programming in utero. They are growth inhibitory and affect the development of all the tissues and organ systems most at risk of postnatal pathophysiology when fetal growth is impaired. Their concentrations in utero are also elevated by all the nutritional and other challenges known to have programming effects. Glucocorticoids act at cellular and molecular levels to alter cell function by changing the expression of receptors, enzymes, ion channels and transporters. They also alter various growth factors, cytoarchitectural proteins, binding proteins and components of the intracellular signalling pathways. Glucocorticoids act, directly, on genes and, indirectly, through changes in the bioavailability of other hormones. These glucocorticoid-induced endocrine changes may be transient or persist into postnatal life with consequences for tissue growth and development both before and after birth. In the long term, prenatal glucocorticoid exposure can permanently reset endocrine systems, such as the somatotrophic and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axes, which, in turn, may contribute to the pathogenesis of adult disease. Endocrine changes may, therefore, be both the cause and the consequence of intrauterine programming.