Abstract Early life experiences, such as early handling, can influence neural development of rodents leading to changes in physiological and behavioural reactivity to stress. These effects are likely to be mediated by changes in maternal behaviour. This study analyzed the effects of different manipulations of the rearing environment on maternal behaviour and the behavioural and physiological response to mild challenges in CD-1 mouse pups early during development. Litters underwent either 15 min of neonatal handling (H) or were exposed briefly to an unfamiliar male intruder from postnatal (PND) days 2 to 14 (MI). Both groups were compared with litters which were not manipulated (NH). Compared to NH subjects, licking behaviour in the MI group was increased only on the first day of introduction of the male intruder, while the H group showed an increase in maternal behaviour on PND 10. On PND 8, pups ultrasonic vocalizations were recorded upon treatment with an axiolytic drug (chlordiazepoxide 0, 2, or 7.5 mg/kg). Results indicate that, although there were no differences among the groups when mice were injected with vehicle, handled subjects did not reduce their calling rate following drug administration, in contrast to the NH and MI groups. Following maternal separation and novelty exposure on PND 9, levels of hippocampal NGF increased significantly only in the H group. These data suggest that active pup manipulations in the form of handling favour behavioural and neural plasticity resulting in the maintenance of a high level of arousal and in increased neurotrophin levels in response to an acute manipulation. Changes in hippocampal levels of NGF might be involved in the appraisal of subtle changes in the early social environment.