Variations in parental care predict the age of puberty, sexual activity in adolescence and the age at first pregnancy in humans. These findings parallel descriptions of maternal effects on phenotypic variation in reproductive function in other species. Despite the prevalence of such reports, little is known about potential biological mechanisms and this especially true for effects on female reproductive development. We examined the hypothesis that parental care might alter hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian function and thus reproductive function in the female offspring of rat mothers that vary pup licking/grooming (LG) over the first week postpartum. As adults, the female offspring of Low LG mothers showed 1) increased sexual receptivity; 2) increased plasma levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and progesterone at proestrus; 3) an increased positive-feedback effect of estradiol on both plasma LH levels and gonadotropin releasing-hormone (GnRH) expression in the medial preoptic region; and 4) increased estrogen receptor α (ERα) expression in the anterioventral paraventricular nucleus, a system that regulates GnRH. The results of a cross-fostering study provide evidence for a direct effect of postnatal maternal care as well as a possible prenatal influence. Indeed, we found evidence for increased fetal testosterone levels at embryonic day 20 in the female fetuses of High compared to Low LG mothers. Finally, the female offspring of Low LG mothers showed accelerated puberty compared to those of High LG mothers. These data suggest maternal effects in the rat on the development of neuroendocrine systems that regulate female sexual behaviour. Together with studies revealing a maternal effect on the maternal behavior of the female offspring, these findings suggest that maternal care can program alternative reproductive phenotypes in the rat through regionally-specific effects on ERα expression.