Early postnatal manipulations of oxytocin have long-term behavioral and physiological consequences; the present study examined the hypothesis that oxytocin or its absence influences the subsequent expression of either oxytocin or arginine vasopressin in the CNS. On postnatal day 1 female and male prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) received a single i.p. injection of oxytocin (3 microg), oxytocin antagonist (0.3 microg), or 50 microl of isotonic saline or were only handled. On postnatal days 1, 8 and 21, brains were fixed, sectioned and stained for oxytocin or vasopressin immunoreactivity and analyzed as a function of age, treatment and sex. Both oxytocin and vasopressin immunoreactivity were observed on day 1 in the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei (PVN) of the hypothalamus. Numbers of oxytocin and vasopressin neurons increased with age in both nuclei. Females treated on postnatal day 1 with oxytocin or oxytocin antagonist displayed a significant increase in oxytocin immunoreactivity on day 21 in the PVN. In contrast, males treated with antagonist tended to have decreased vasopressin immunoreactivity in the same region. These results revealed that the effects of neonatal manipulation of oxytocin are age-dependent, site-specific and sexually dimorphic. The long-lasting effects of neonatal exposure to exogenous oxytocin and oxytocin antagonist indicate a role for oxytocin in the development of the CNS during the neonatal period, affecting the development of the oxytocinergic system in females and the vasopressinergic system in males. The developmental effects observed suggest one possible mechanism by which neonatal exposure to oxytocin or neonatal inhibition of endogenous oxytocin produces long-lasting behavioral and physiological alterations and could play a role in the development of male- and female-typical behavior.