Early experience has a particularly great effect on most organisms. Normal development may be disrupted by early environmental influences; individuals that survive have to cope with the damaging consequences. Additionally, the responses required to cope with environmental challenges in early life may have long-term effects on the adult organism. A further set of processes, those of developmental plasticity, may induce a phenotype that is adapted to the adult environment predicted by the conditions of early life. A mismatch between prediction and subsequent reality can cause severe health problems in those human societies where economic circumstances and nutrition are rapidly improving. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of plasticity is, therefore, clinically important. However, to conduct research in this area, developmental plasticity must be disentangled from disruption and the adverse long-term effects of coping. The paper reviews these concepts and explores ways in which such distinctions may be made in practice.