Fetal programming encompasses the role of developmental plasticity in response to environmental and nutritional signals during early life and its potential adverse consequences (risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and behavioural diseases) in later life. The first studies in this field highlighted an association between poor fetal growth and chronic adult diseases. However, environmental signals during early life may lead to adverse long-term effects independently of obvious effects on fetal growth. Adverse long-term effects reflect a mismatch between early (fetal and neonatal) environmental conditions and the conditions that the individual will confront later in life. The mechanisms underlying this risk remain unclear. However, experimental data in rodents and recent observations in humans suggest that epigenetic changes in regulatory genes and growth-related genes play a significant role in fetal programming. Improvements in our understanding of the biochemical and molecular mechanisms at play in fetal programming would make it possible to identify biomarkers for detecting infants at high risk of adult-onset diseases. Such improvements should also lead to the development of preventive and therapeutic strategies.