Our understanding of the role played by neurotransmitter receptors in the developing brain has advanced in recent years. The major excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain, glutamate and GABA, activate both ionotropic (ligand-gated ion channels) and metabotropic (G protein-coupled) receptors, and are generally associated with neuronal communication in the mature brain. However, before the emergence of their role in neurotransmission in adulthood, they also act to influence earlier developmental events, some of which occur prior to synapse formation: such as proliferation, migration, differentiation or survival processes during neural development. To fulfill these actions in the constructing of the nervous system, different types of glutamate and GABA receptors need to be expressed both at the right time and at the right place. The identification by molecular cloning of 16 ionotropic glutamate receptor subunits, eight metabotropic glutamate receptor subtypes, 21 ionotropic and two metabotropic GABA receptor subunits, some of which exist in alternatively splice variants, has enriched our appreciation of how molecular diversity leads to functional diversity in the brain. It now appears that many different types of glutamate and GABA receptor subunits have prominent expression in the embryonic and/or postnatal brain, whereas others are mainly present in the adult brain. Although the significance of this differential expression of subunits is not fully understood, it appears that the change in subunit composition is essential for normal development in particular brain regions. This review focuses on emerging information relating to the expression and role of glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmitter receptors during prenatal and postnatal development.