Osmoregulation was studied in eight women during late pregnancy and again 8-10 wk postpartum. Base-line plasma osmolality (Posmol) was significantly lower during (280.9 +/- 2.1 mosmol/kg, SD) than after (289.4 +/- 2.1 mosmol/kg) pregnancy yet 24-h urinary volume and plasma arginine vasopressin (PAVP) measured in vasopressinase-inactivated blood was similar in both groups (pregnancy, 1.39 +/- 0.56 pg/ml; postpartum, 1.25 +/- 0.62 pg/ml). After 12 h of dehydration PAVP rose similarly and significantly both during (2.25 +/- 0.81 pg/ml) and after (2.89 +/- 1.19 pg/ml) gestation, and Uosmol was similar on both occasions (pregnancy, 779 +/- 121 mosmol/kg; postpartum, 784 +/- 102 mosmol/kg). When Posmol was increased by the slow infusion of 5% saline PAVP increased as soon as body tonicity did both during and after pregnancy. PAVP correlated significantly with Posmol in each subject (range of r, 0.75-0.99) and the mean regression lines [pregnancy, PAVP = 0.32 (Posmol; -279), r = 0.79; postpartum, PAVP = 0.38 (Posmol, -285), r = 0.86] demonstrated that the apparent osmotic threshold for AVP secretion was 6 mosmol/kg lower during than after gestation. Similarly the Posmol at which the subject experienced a conscious desire to drink was lower in pregnant (287 +/- 1.6 mosmol/kg) compared with postpartum subjects (298 +/- 2.0 mosmol/kg; P less than 0.001). These data demonstrate decreased osmotic thresholds for AVP release and thirst during human pregnancy and explain why gravidas can maintain their new lower Posmol within narrow limits.