Cellular and molecular left-right differences that are present in the mesodermal heart fields suggest that the heart is lateralized from its inception. Left-right asymmetry persists as the heart fields coalesce to form the primary heart tube, and overt, morphological asymmetry first becomes evident when the heart tube undergoes looping morphogenesis. Thereafter, chamber formation, differentiation of the inflow and outflow tracts, and position of the heart relative to the midline are additional features of heart development that exhibit left-right differences. Observations made in human clinical studies and in animal models of laterality disease suggest that all of these features of cardiac development are influenced by the embryonic left-right body axis. When errors in left-right axis determination happen, they almost always are associated with complex congenital heart malformations. The purpose of this review is to highlight what is presently known about cardiac development and upstream processes of left-right axis determination, and to consider how perturbation of the left-right body plan might ultimately result in particular types of congenital heart defects.