Chronic stress early in postnatal life influences hormonal and behavioural responses to stress persistently, but the mechanisms and molecular cascades that are involved in this process have not been clarified. To approach these issues, a chronic stress paradigm for the neonatal rat, using limited bedding material to alter the cage environment, was devised. In 9-day-old rats subjected to this chronic stress for 1 week, significant and striking changes in the expression and release patterns of key molecules that govern the neuroendocrine stress responses were observed. The presence of sustained stress was evident from enhanced activation of peripheral elements of the neuroendocrine stress response, i.e. increased basal plasma corticosterone concentrations, high adrenal weight and decreased body weight. Central regulatory elements of the neuroendocrine stress response were perturbed, including reduced expression of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone that, surprisingly, was accompanied by reduced glucocorticoid receptor expression. Thus, the effects of chronic sustained stress in the neonatal rat on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis included substantial changes in the expression and activity of major regulators of this axis. Importantly, the changes induced by this chronic stress differed substantially from those related to acute or recurrent stress, providing a novel model for studying the long-term effects of chronic, early life stress on neuroendocrine functions throughout life.