To investigate the energetic costs of lactation in a female mammal in relation to previous reproductive history, we compared the performance of adult female Long-Evans rats that had previously bred (multiparous) with young females that had not previously given birth (primiparous). All litters were standardized to 10 +/- 1 young. We compared maternal production (growth of pups), body mass, and energy intake (food consumption) of mothers, as well as their energy expenditure (resting oxygen consumption). The mass of litters at birth and the growth of pups during lactation did not differ according to reproductive history of the mothers. The body mass of primiparous mothers was less than that of multiparous mothers, and primiparous mothers showed an increase in mass during early lactation. To accomplish the essentially identical production of offspring under these circumstances, the primiparous mothers consumed and expended more energy than the multiparous mothers. This remarkable performance of first-time mothers results in an overall efficiency of energy allocation to reproduction amounting to only 25%, compared with 38% in multiparous mothers. The energetic inefficiency of primiparous female lactation results largely from the excessive expenditures associated with physiological and behavioral performances of first-time reproduction, together with a small component of additional expenditure due to further growth by the primiparous mothers. We suggest that this inefficiency probably contributes to the observed low reproductive success of novice breeders; furthermore, active restraint of fecundity may be an evolutionary response to the constraints of the energetic inefficiency of primiparous breeding by female mammals.