Quantitative receptor autoradiography was used to map the distribution in the developing human spinal cord of the three types of ionotropic glutamate receptors. N-methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA) receptors were labeled with [3H]glutamate, kainic acid (KA) receptors were labeled with [3H]KA, and α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole proprionate (AMPA) receptors were labeled with [3H]AMPA. In the adult, labeling of all three receptor subtypes is largely restricted to the substantia gelatinosa (SG) in the dorsal horn, with very low level labeling elsewhere in the spinal gray matter. In marked distinction, in late fetal life, high level ligand binding is seen throughout the spinal gray matter. In early postnatal life, binding sites diminish in all regions, but least so in the SG, until the adult pattern emerges. Thus a coordinated transient high level of ionotropic glutamate receptor expression occurs within the developing spinal cord. Saturation analysis of ligand binding shows that the affinity of [3H]KA and [3H]AMPA binding is not developmentally regulated. In contrast, the affinity of [3H]glutamate binding to the NMDA receptor in the fetal ventral horn is three-fold greater than in the adult ventral horn. Thus, in addition to quantitative changes in glutamate receptor expression, qualitative changes occur in the expression of NMDA receptors during development. The distinct glutamate receptor phenotype of fetal and early postnatal spinal cord cells suggests that alterations in the excitable properties of these cells plays an important role in activity-dependent development and in susceptibility to excitotoxic injury. J. Comp. Neurol. 384:200-210, 1997. © 1997 Wiley-Liss, Inc.