Extensive human epidemiologic and animal model data indicate that during critical periods of prenatal and postnatal mammalian development, nutrition and other environmental stimuli influence developmental pathways and thereby induce permanent changes in metabolism and chronic disease susceptibility. The biologic mechanisms underlying this "developmental origins hypothesis" are poorly understood. This review focuses on the likely involvement of epigenetic mechanisms in the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD). We describe permanent effects of transient environmental influences on the developmental establishment of epigenetic gene regulation and evidence linking epigenetic dysregulation with human disease. We propose a definition of "epigenetic epidemiology" and delineate how this emerging field provides a basis from which to explore the role of epigenetic mechanisms in DOHaD. We suggest strategies for future human epidemiologic studies to identify causal associations between early exposures, long-term changes in epigenetic regulation, and disease, which may ultimately enable specific early-life interventions to improve human health.