Insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) and their receptors in the fetus are essential for growth and postnatal survival but the role of maternal IGFs is less well understood. Animal and in vitro evidence suggests that maternal IGF-I may have important effects on placental function. Recent work in humans suggests that although there is no relationship between maternal serum IGF-I and normal fetal growth, levels are low in pregnancies complicated by fetal growth restriction due to placental dysfunction. A prospective and observational study was undertaken of the distribution and concentration of placental type I IGF receptors (IGF-IR) in women with small for gestational age (n=26) or appropriately grown (n=14) fetuses. Women were scanned biweekly from 24 weeks to delivery and cases (birthweight <5th centile) were assigned to two groups: 'fetal growth restriction' (FGR; umbilical artery pulsatility index [UAPI] > +2 s.d.; n=16) and 'normal small for gestational age' (SGA; normal UAPI, growth velocity and amniotic fluid; n=10). Immunohistochemistry of the IGF-IR was performed on formol saline-fixed placental biopsies obtained at delivery. In control pregnancies IGF-IR were present in villous endothelium and stroma, trophoblast and decidua and their distribution and density were unchanged in both SGA and FGR pregnancies. We hypothesize that a therapeutic elevation of maternal IGF-I in FGR pregnancy might lead to enhanced placental function and so fetal growth. Our findings of normal localization and density of placental IGF-IR in FGR encourage us to extend our work to look at the effects of maternal IGF-I on the transport of glucose and amino acids.