The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays a key role in the neuroendocrine response to stress. Dynamic changes in HPA axis regulation and hence HPA responsivity occur over the lifetime of an animal. This article focuses on two extremes of the spectrum. The first occurs naturally during pregnancy when stress responses are dampened. The second, at the opposite end of the scale, occurs in offspring of mothers who were exposed to stress during pregnancy and display exaggerated HPA axis stress responses. Reduced glucocorticoid output in response to stress in pregnancy may have important consequences for conserving energy supply to the foetus(es), in modulating immune system adaptations and in protecting against adverse foetal programming by glucocorticoids. Understanding the mechanisms underpinning this adaptation in pregnancy may provide insights for manipulating HPA axis responsiveness in later life, particularly in the context of resetting HPA axis hyperactivity associated with prenatal stress exposure, which may underlie several major pathologies, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, obesity, cognitive decline and mood disorders.