Epidemiological studies have demonstrated an association between intrauterine growth retardation and an increased risk of adult diseases that include essential hypertension, noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, and ischemic heart disease. A common feature of these diseases is insulin resistance. To investigate whether abnormal insulin sensitivity was a characteristic of subjects with intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), we compared two groups of short prepubertal children: a group with IUGR (birth weight less than the tenth percentile; n = 15) and a normal birth weight group (n = 12). Subjects underwent a modified frequently sampled iv glucose tolerance test that permitted calculation of the acute insulin response, insulin sensitivity index, and glucose effectiveness. A marked difference in the insulin sensitivity index was noted between groups, with the IUGR group being less insulin sensitive [6.9 vs. 16.9 10(-4)min-1.(microU/mL); P = 0.0048]. The acute insulin response was also significantly different between groups, with IUGR subjects having higher insulin levels (445 vs. 174 microU/mL; P = 0.005). There was no difference in glucose effectiveness between groups. Short prepubertal IUGR children have a specific impairment in insulin sensitivity compared to their normal birth weight peers. In short IUGR children, impaired insulin sensitivity is a potential marker for the early identification and intervention in the development of late adult-onset noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.