Epithelial apoptosis has a key role in the development and function of the mammary gland. It is involved with the formation of ducts during puberty and is required to remove excess epithelial cells after lactation so that the gland can be prepared for future pregnancies. Deregulated apoptosis contributes to malignant progression in the genesis of breast cancer. Since epithelial cell apoptosis in the lactating mammary gland can be synchronised by forced weaning, it has been possible to undertake biochemical analysis of the pathways involved. Together with the targeted overexpression or deletion of candidate genes, these approaches have provided a unique insight into the complex mechanisms of apoptosis regulation in vivo. This review explores what is currently known about the triggers for apoptosis in the normal mammary gland, and how they link with the intrinsic apoptotic machinery.