Fetal stem cells differ phenotypically and functionally from adult stem cells in diverse tissues. However, little is known about how these differences are regulated. To address this we compared the gene expression profiles of fetal versus adult hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and discovered that the Sox17 transcriptional regulator is specifically expressed in fetal and neonatal but not adult HSCs. Germline deletion of Sox17 led to severe fetal hematopoietic defects, including a lack of detectable definitive HSCs. Conditional deletion of Sox17 from hematopoietic cells led to the loss of fetal and neonatal but not adult HSCs. HSCs stopped expressing Sox17 approximately 4 weeks after birth. During this transition, loss of Sox17 expression correlated with slower proliferation and the acquisition of an adult phenotype by individual HSCs. Sox17 is thus required for the maintenance of fetal and neonatal HSCs and distinguishes their transcriptional regulation from adult HSCs.