Considerable evidence demonstrates that the quality of the early environment influences patterns of development that, in turn, determine the health and productivity of the individual throughout their life span. However, the processes through which early life influences health are not clearly understood. Through the activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) pathways, prolonged or exaggerated responses to stress have profound effects on physiological and cognitive functions. Early maternal separation or handling of neonatal rats can program widespread and lifelong changes in various transmitter systems that regulate the HPA and CRH systems. Our studies show that a high level of maternal licking/grooming, and arched-back nursing correlates with reduced CRH mRNA expression and enhanced glucocorticoid negative feedback, and lower stress responses in the adult. This behavior is stably transmitted between generations and cross-fostering studies show that the offspring inherit the behavior from the nursing mother and not the biological mother. Such intergenerational transmission of maternal behavior is seen in rodents, primates and humans, and may underlie adaptive changes in the HPA axis. The neural basis of this inheritance pattern appears to reside in the central oxytocin system which determines features of maternal behavior. Through these various adaptive neural mechanisms the environmental demand on the mother is reflected in the quality of maternal care to her offspring. This, in turn, programs stress reactivity and maternal behavior patterns of the offspring. This not only determines certain health outcomes but also establishes the relationships between mother and offspring in the next generation. These findings suggest that for neurobiologists, the function of the family is an important level of analysis and the critical question is that of how environmental events regulate neural systems that mediate the expression of parental care.