Few reliable predictors indicate which depressed individuals respond to antidepressants. Several studies suggest that a history of early-life trauma predicts poorer response to antidepressant therapy but results are variable and limited in adults. The major goal of the present study was to evaluate the role of early-life trauma in predicting acute response outcomes to antidepressants in a large sample of well-characterized patients with major depressive disorder (MDD). The international Study to Predict Optimized Treatment for Depression (iSPOT-D) is a randomized clinical trial with enrollment from December 2008 to January 2012 at eight academic and nine private clinical settings in five countries. Patients (n=1008) meeting DSM-IV criteria for MDD and 336 matched healthy controls comprised the study sample. Six participants withdrew due to serious adverse events. Randomization was to 8 weeks of treatment with escitalopram, sertraline or venlafaxine with dosage adjusted by the participant's treating clinician per routine clinical practice. Exposure to 18 types of traumatic events before the age of 18 was assessed using the Early-Life Stress Questionnaire. Impact of early-life stressors-overall trauma 'load' and specific type of abuse-on treatment outcomes measures: response: (⩾50% improvement on the 17-item Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, HRSD17 or on the 16-item Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self-Rated, QIDS_SR16) and remission (score ⩽7 on the HRSD17 and ⩽5 on the QIDS_SR16). Trauma prevalence in MDD was compared with controls. Depressed participants were significantly more likely to report early-life stress than controls; 62.5% of MDD participants reported more than two traumatic events compared with 28.4% of controls. The higher rate of early-life trauma was most apparent for experiences of interpersonal violation (emotional, sexual and physical abuses). Abuse and notably abuse occurring at ⩽7 years of age predicted poorer outcomes after 8 weeks of antidepressants, across the three treatment arms. In addition, the abuses occurring between ages 4 and 7 years differentially predicted the poorest outcome following the treatment with sertraline. Specific types of early-life trauma, particularly physical, emotional and sexual abuse, especially when occurring at ⩽7 years of age are important moderators of subsequent response to antidepressant therapy for MDD.