The contribution of co-translational chaperone functions to protein folding is poorly understood. Ribosome-associated trigger factor (TF) is the first molecular chaperone encountered by nascent polypeptides in bacteria. Here we show, using fluorescence spectroscopy to monitor TF function and structural rearrangements in real time, that TF interacts with ribosomes and translating polypeptides in a dynamic reaction cycle. Ribosome binding stabilizes TF in an open, activated conformation. Activated TF departs from the ribosome after a mean residence time of approximately 10 s, but may remain associated with the elongating nascent chain for up to 35 s, allowing entry of a new TF molecule at the ribosome docking site. The duration of nascent-chain interaction correlates with the occurrence of hydrophobic motifs in translating polypeptides, reflecting a high aggregation propensity. These findings can explain how TF prevents misfolding events during translation and may provide a paradigm for the regulation of nucleotide-independent chaperones.