Prenatal insults, such as maternal dietary protein deprivation and uteroplacental insufficiency, lead to small for gestational age (SGA) neonates. Epidemiological studies from many different parts of the world have shown that SGA neonates are at increased risk for hypertension and early death from cardiovascular disease as adults. Animal models, including prenatal administration of dexamethasone, uterine artery ligation and maternal dietary protein restriction, result in SGA neonates with fewer nephrons than controls. These models are discussed in this educational review, which provides evidence that prenatal insults lead to altered sodium transport in multiple nephron segments. The factors that could result in increased sodium transport are discussed, focusing on new information that there is increased renal sympathetic nerve activity that may be responsible for augmented renal tubular sodium transport. Renal denervation abrogates the hypertension in programmed rats but has no effect on control rats. Other potential factors that could cause hypertension in programmed rats, such as the renin–angiotensin system, are also discussed.