There are data indicating that stress-induced prolactin (PRL) release is blunted in the lactating rat like the release of other stress-associated hormones. In this experiment, the PRL release evoked by administration of estrogen, which is another principal stimulus for PRL release, was examined in ovariectomized lactating rats 8-15 days after delivery. Estradiol benzoate (EB, 20 µg) injections into ovariectomized nonlactating rats induced a PRL surge starting between 13:00 and 15:00 h with a peak at 17:00 h 2 days after the treatment, whereas the EB-induced PRL surge was absent in ovariectomized lactating rats separated from their pups at 09:00 h on the day or in mothers without separation from their pups. Injection of either thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH; 10 µg/kg) or pimozide (0.5 mg/kg) elevated serum PRL concentrations similarly in lactating and nonlactating rats when examined just before the beginning of the expected estrogen-induced PRL surge. Thus, the main cause for the reduced PRL response to estrogen in lactating rats seems not to be in the pituitary gland but in the brain. Progesterone, which is know to induce a PRL surge in ovariectomized estrogen-primed rats by acting on the mediobasal hypothalamus, also failed to evoke a PRL surge in lactating rats. Recovery from the inhibitory influence of suckling on PRL response to EB followed a time course similar to that observed in response to immobilization stress or to morphine injection; estrogen-induced PRL surge started to recover at 6 days and was almost fully recovered 8 days after weaning. These facts indicate that suckling stimuli may cause functional alterations in the neural systems responsible for PRL release, resulting in refractoriness of the PRL response to ovarian steroids.