Plasma cortisol and adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) were measured in fetal blood samples obtained by cordocentesis from 61 appropriate for gestational age (AGA) and in 41 small for gestational age (SGA) fetuses at 18-38 weeks gestation. Fetal plasma cortisol (mean 74 nmol/l) did not change but plasma ACTH increased between 18 and 36 weeks gestation and the two were not significantly correlated. Plasma cortisol in cord blood samples after vaginal delivery at term (mean 305 nmol/l) was higher than in samples at elective cesarean section (mean 151 nmol/l), and there was a significant correlation between fetal and maternal levels. The findings suggest that in human fetuses a late gestational rise in plasma cortisol may not be necessary for organ maturation and that the high fetal plasma cortisol in spontaneous labor at term is probably the result rather than the cause of labor. In SGA fetuses, plasma cortisol was higher and ACTH lower than in AGA fetuses, and plasma cortisol was inversely correlated to fetal hypoglycemia, suggesting that in the chronically hypoglycemic SGA fetus the fetal pituitary is under negative inhibition.