Developmental programming can be defined as a response to a specific challenge to the mammalian organism during a critical developmental time window that alters the trajectory of development with persistent effects on offspring phenotype and predisposition to future illness. We focus on the need for studies in relevant, well-characterized animal models in the context of recent research discoveries on the challenges, mechanisms and outcomes of developmental programming. We discuss commonalities and differences in general principles of developmental programming as they apply to several species, including humans. The consequences of these differences are discussed. Obesity, metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases are associated with the highest percentage of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Although many of the causes are associated with lifestyle, high-energy diets and lack of physical activity, recent evidence has linked developmental programming to the epidemic of metabolic diseases. A better understanding of comparative systems physiology of mother, fetus and neonate using information provided by rapid advances in molecular biology has the potential to improve the lifetime health of future generations by providing better women's health, diagnostic tools and preventative and therapeutic interventions in individuals exposed during their development to programming influences.