The contribution of amniotic fluid to fetal growth and gastrointestinal tract development was studied in a rabbit model. In the fetal rabbit, at 23 days gestation, 3 conditions were surgically produced: (1) prevention of swallowing of amniotic fluid by esophageal ligation (n = 8); (2) esophageal ligation but insertion of an esophageal cannula distally to allow continuous infusion into the stomach of bovine amniotic fluid to mimic fetal swallowing (n = 7); and (3) sham operation (n = 7). Fetuses were delivered by Caesarean section at 28 days gestation. Esophageal ligation resulted in significant reductions of birth weight and crown-rump length and a trend to decreased liver weight when compared to sham operated controls. Additionally, marked reductions in gastric and intestinal tissue weight and gastric acidity were found following esophageal ligation. These reductions in both somatic and gastrointestinal tract growth and gastric function were reversed by infusion of amniotic fluid intragastrically. We conclude that amniotic fluid provides 10% to 14% of the nutritional requirements of the normal fetus, and that amniotic fluid contains a potent and as yet undefined gastrointestinal tract trophic factor.