Glucocorticoids may underlie the association between low birth weight and adult disorders such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and affective dysfunction. We investigated the behavioural and molecular consequences of two paradigms of prenatal dexamethasone administration in rats. Rats received dexamethasone (100 microg/kg per day) throughout pregnancy (DEX1-3), in the last third of pregnancy only (DEX3) or vehicle. Both dexamethasone treatments reduced birth weight, only DEX1-3 offspring had reduced body weight in adulthood. In adult offspring, both prenatal dexamethasone paradigms reduced exploratory behaviour in an open field. In contrast, only DEX3 reduced exploration in an elevated plus-maze and impaired behavioural responses and learning in a forced-swim test. This behavioural inhibition may reflect increased baseline corticotrophin-releasing hormone mRNA levels (30% higher) in the central nucleus of the amygdala in both dexamethasone-exposed groups. Adult DEX3 offspring also showed increased corticotrophin-releasing hormone mRNA with unaltered glucocorticoid receptor mRNA in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus and reduced hippocampal glucocorticoid- and mineralocorticoid receptor mRNA expression, suggesting reduced hippocampal sensitivity to glucocorticoid suppression of the stress axis. In contrast, DEX1-3 rats had no changes in hippocampal corticosteroid receptors, but showed increased mRNA levels for both receptors in the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala. From this data we suggest that prenatal glucocorticoid exposure programs behavioural inhibition perhaps via increased amygdalar corticotrophin-releasing hormone levels, while DEX3 also impairs coping and learning in aversive situations, possibly via altered hippocampal corticosteroid receptor levels. Overexposure to glucocorticoids, especially late in gestation, may explain the link between reduced early growth and adult affective dysfunction.