A history of child maltreatment increases the vulnerability to the development of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and/or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), especially in females. Both MDD and PTSD are associated with a dysregulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. Dysregulation of the HPA axis may be an important etiological link between child maltreatment and subsequent psychiatric disorder, yet little is known about the relationship between exposure and outcome. The aim of this review is to explore the role of HPA axis dysregulation in the link between child maltreatment and MDD/PTSD among women. Studies of females with MDD frequently indicate a hyperactivity of the HPA axis, and contribute to our understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved in mood dysregulation. Evidence for HPA axis dysregulation in PTSD is less convincing and suggests that timing of the stressful experience as well as the type of the trauma may influence the outcome. The strongest evidence to date suggesting that the development of the HPA axis may be affected by early life stressful experiences comes from pre-clinical animal studies. Together these studies add to our understanding of the role of the HPA axis in psychiatric disorders in relation to stress. The literature on HPA axis function in both children and adults following child maltreatment further highlights the potential relevance of early stress to later onset of major psychiatric disorders. Such knowledge may also contribute to the development of early interventions targeted at primary prevention.