The differentiation of vagal motor neurons and their emerging central relationship with vagal sensory afferents was examined in fetal rats. To identify peripherally projecting sensory and motor neurons, 1,1'-dioctadecyl-3,3,3'3'-tetramethylindocarbocyanine perchlorate (DiI) was inserted into the proximal gut or cervical vagus nerve in fixed preparations. At embryonic day (E) 12, labeled vagal sensory neurons are present in the nodose ganglia and a few sensory axons project into the dorsolateral medulla. Central sensory processes become increasingly prevalent between E13 and E14 but remain restricted to the solitary tract. Vagal motor neurons are first labeled at E13, clustered within a region corresponding to the nucleus ambiguus (NA). Additional motor neurons appear to be migrating toward the NA from the germinal zone of the fourth ventricle. Motor neurons in the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV) first project to the gut at E14 and have processes that remain in physical contact with the ventricular zone through E16. Sensory axons emerge from the solitary tract at E15 and project medially through the region of the nucleus of the solitary tract (NST) to end in the ventricular zone. A possible substrate for direct vagovagal, sensorimotor interaction appears at E16, when vagal sensory fibers arborize within the DMV and DMV dendrites extend into the NST. By E18, the vagal nuclei appear remarkably mature. These data suggest specific and discrete targeting of vagal sensory afferents and motor neuron dendrites in fetal rats and define an orderly sequence of developmental events that precedes the establishment of vagal sensorimotor circuits.