Previous studies have suggested that asthma, like other common diseases, has at least part of its origin early in life. Low birth weight has been shown to be associated with increased risks of asthma, chronic obstructive airway disease, and impaired lung function in adults, and increased risks of respiratory symptoms in early childhood. The developmental plasticity hypothesis suggests that the associations between low birth weight and diseases in later life are explained by adaptation mechanisms in fetal life and infancy in response to various adverse exposures. Various pathways leading from adverse fetal and infant exposures to growth adaptations and respiratory health outcomes have been studied, including fetal and early infant growth patterns, maternal smoking and diet, children's diet, respiratory tract infections and acetaminophen use, and genetic susceptibility. Still, the specific adverse exposures in fetal and early postnatal life leading to respiratory disease in adult life are not yet fully understood. Current studies suggest that both environmental and genetic factors in various periods of life, and their epigenetic mechanisms may underlie the complex associations of low birth weight with respiratory disease in later life. New well-designed epidemiological studies are needed to identify the specific underlying mechanisms. This review is focused on specific adverse fetal and infant growth patterns and exposures, genetic susceptibility, possible respiratory adaptations and perspectives for new studies.