Rat pups 2-14 days of age were exposed daily to handling (15 min of separation from mother and home cage), maternal separation (MS; 180 min of comparable separation), or were left entirely undisturbed (non-handled; NH). As adults, MS rats showed increased hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) mRNA levels compared with NH rats, while CRF mRNA levels in H rats were significantly lower than either MS or NH animals. Hypothalamic CRF content under basal conditions followed exactly the same pattern. A 20-min period of restraint stress produced significant CRF depletion in all groups, although the percentage of depletion was significantly lower in H animals compared with either MS or NH animals. Restraint stress produced significantly higher increases in plasma corticosterone in MS and NH animals than in H animals. These data reflect the importance of early environmental factors in regulating the development of the hypothalamic CRF system and the responsiveness of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to stress.