At present, we do not know what causes sporadic breast cancer. Environmental factors,particularly diet, appear to explain at least 70% of newly diagnosed breast cancers, but it is not clear what these factors are. We propose that the lack of progress in this area is due to a lack of considering the effect of timing of environmental and dietary exposures on the breast. The evidence provided above suggests that an in utero exposure to an estrogenic environment-including that caused by diet [high (n-6) PUFA or genistein]-increases breast cancer risk. This increase may be mediated by an increased presence of TEB in the mammary epithelial tree and increased ER-alpha levels, reduced ER-beta levels or both. Prepubertal estrogenic exposure, in contrast, reduces later risk of developing breast cancer. The protective effect of estrogens may be mediated by early epithelial differentiation, reduced presence of ER-alpha and increased levels of ER-beta in the mammary gland. The challenge we are now facing is to determine whether the data obtained mainly through the use of animal models is relevant to women and if so, how we might be able to modulate pregnancy and childhood estrogenic exposure by appropriate dietary modifications to reduce breast cancer risk in women.