Gestational stress (GS) produces profound behavioural impairments in the offspring and may permanently programme hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function. We investigated whether or not GS produced changes in the maternal behaviour of rat dams, and measured depression-like behaviour in the dam, which might contribute to effects in the progeny. We used the Porsolt test, which measures immobility in a forced-swim task, and models depression in rodents, while monitoring maternal care (arched-back nursing, licking/grooming, nesting/grouping pups). Pregnant rats underwent daily restraint stress (1 h/day, days 10-20 of gestation), or were left undisturbed (control). On post-parturition days 3 and 4, dams were placed into a swim tank, and time spent immobile was measured. GS significantly elevated immobility scores by approximately 25% above control values on the second test day. Maternal behaviours, in particular arched-back nursing and nesting/grouping pups, were reduced in GS dams over post-natal days 1-10. Adult offspring showed increased immobility in the Porsolt test, and also hypersecreted ACTH and CORT in response to an acute stress challenge. These data show that GS can alter maternal behaviour in mothers, and this might contribute to alterations in the offspring. GS may be an important factor in maternal post-natal depression, which may in turn detrimentally effect the offspring because depressed mothers do not sufficiently care for their offspring. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.