Plasma CRH was measured in maternal plasma throughout the third trimester of pregnancy, during labor, and postpartum. CRH levels were also measured in arterial and venous umbilical cord plasma samples. In normal pregnant women, plasma CRH increased from 50 +/- 15 (+/- SEM) pg/mL at 28 weeks gestation (n = 41) to 1462 +/- 182 pg/mL at 40 weeks (n = 55) and 1680 +/- 101 pg/mL (n = 65) in labor. Women with pregnancy-induced hypertension (n = 49) had plasma CRH levels significantly elevated above this normal range. Similarly, women who subsequently went into premature labor had raised levels several weeks before the onset of labor. After delivery, plasma CRH returned to normal within 15 h. Total plasma cortisol levels varied little throughout the third trimester, but increased during labor and remained elevated 2-3 days postpartum. There was, therefore, no correlation between plasma cortisol and CRH, implying that this placental CRH is not primarily involved in the control of the maternal hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal axis during pregnancy. The concentrations of CRH in umbilical cord plasma samples were considerably lower than those in the maternal circulation and were close to those in normal nonpregnant adults.