Prenatal maternal therapy with glucocorticoid reduces the incidence of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature infants. To investigate the effects of this treatment on the fetal endocrine system, we determined serum concentrations of betamethasone, cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, growth hormone, and prolactin in cord blood of 215 treated infants and 117 untreated infants of 26--36 wk of gestation. Cortisol levels are suppressed within 6 hr of betamethasone treatment, decrease to 45% of the concentration in untreated infants (8.4 micrograms/dl), and return to normal by 7 days. Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate is reduced maximally by 65% and returns to normal concentrations (123.5 micrograms/dl in 7 1/2 days. The suppression of both steroids was similar after treatment with 12 mg betamethasone (acetate and phosphate) daily 2 times or with 6 mg betamethasone (alcohol) twice daily 4 times. Peak betamethasone levels were higher after the 12 mg dose, but the two-treatment regimens produced a similar total exposure of the fetus to elevated serum glucocorticoid activity for 2 1/2 days and decreased plasma activity for the subsequent 4 1/2 days. Treated infants with low cortisol concentrations at birth increased their cortisol levels severalfold after birth in response to either intrapartum asphyxia or RDS. Betamethasone therapy did not affect cord serum prolactin levels, but the concentration of growth hormone was reduced at all ages. The suppression was greatest (53% decrease) among infants of 28 less than 32 wk, and, among older infants, there was a subsequent increase above control levels between 2 and 4 days after treatment. This study indicates that prenatal betamethasone treatment causes a transient suppression of fetal growth hormone and presumably those pituitary hormones which regulate steroid production by both the definitive and fetal zones of the fetal adrenal. However, the suppression of fetal cortisol does not interfere with the pituitary-adrenocortical response to stress after birth.