Since the first mention of fetal programming of adult health and disease, a plethora of programming events in early life has been suggested. These have included intrauterine and postnatal events, but limited attention has been given to the potential contribution of the birth process to normal physiology and long-term health. Over the last 30 years a growing number of studies have demonstrated that babies born at term by vaginal delivery (VD) have significantly different physiology at birth to those born by Caesarean section (CS), particularly when there has been no exposure to labour, i.e. pre-labour CS (PLCS). This literature is reviewed here and the processes involved in VD that might programme post-natal development are discussed. Some of the effects of CS are short term, but longer term problems are also apparent. We suggest that VD initiates important physiological trajectories and the absence of this stimulus in CS has implications for adult health. There are a number of factors that might plausibly contribute to this programming, one of which is the hormonal surge or "stress response" of VD. Given the increasing incidence of elective PLCS, an understanding of the effects of VD on normal development is crucial.
© 2011 The Authors. Biological Reviews © 2011 Cambridge Philosophical Society.