Serious developmental disabilities (DD) are quite common and affect approximately 2% of all school-aged children. The impact of DDs with respect to the need for special education services, medical care and the demand on family members can be enormous. While this impact can be magnified for families with more than one child with a DD, little is known regarding the epidemiology of recurrence of DDs. When the cause of a DD is unknown, genetic counsellors rely on recurrence risk estimates which for DDs are over 10 years old. The objectives of our study were to: (1) assess the contribution of recurrent cases to the prevalence of DDs; (2) provide current, population-based recurrence risk estimates; and (3) examine characteristics of the first affected child as predictors of recurrence. Two population-based data sources were used to identify all children born to the same mother during the period 1981-91 in the five-county metropolitan Atlanta area with at least one of four DDs: mental retardation (MR), cerebral palsy, hearing loss, or vision impairment. Recurrence risk estimates for these DDs ranged from 3% to 7% and were many times higher than the background prevalences. The risk of recurrence of DDs was greatest for MR - approximately eight times greater than the baseline MR prevalence. Isolated mild MR (IQ 50-70) was highly concordant between siblings with MR. Sex, race, and birthweight of the index child, maternal education, and maternal age were not significantly associated with recurrence risk. Further research is needed to investigate the roles of genetic and environmental factors on the recurrence of DDs, particularly isolated mild MR.