Recent epidemiological and experimental studies show that abnormal fetal growth can lead to serious complications, including stillbirth, perinatal morbidity and disorders extending well beyond the neonatal period. It is now clear that the intrauterine milieu is as important as genetic endowment in shaping the future health of the conceptus. Maternal characteristics such as weight, height, parity and ethnic group need to be adjusted for, and pathological factors such as smoking excluded, to establish appropriate standards and improve the distinction between what is normal and abnormal. Currently, the aetiology of growth restriction is not well understood and preventative measures are ineffective. Elective delivery remains the principal management option, which emphasizes the need for better screening techniques for the timely detection of intrauterine growth failure.