The developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) is a concept linking pre- and early postnatal exposures to environmental influences with long-term health outcomes and susceptibility to disease. It has provided a new perspective on the etiology and evolution of chronic disease risk, and as such is a classic example of a paradigm shift. What first emerged as the ‘fetal origins of disease’, the evolution of the DOHaD conceptual framework is a storied one in which preclinical studies played an important role. With its potential clinical applications of DOHaD, there is increasing desire to leverage this growing body of preclinical work to improve health outcomes in populations all over the world. In this review, we provide a perspective on the values and limitations of preclinical research, and the challenges that impede its translation. The review focuses largely on the developmental programming of cardiovascular function and begins with a brief discussion on the emergence of the ‘Barker hypothesis’, and its subsequent evolution into the more-encompassing DOHaD framework. We then discuss some fundamental pathophysiological processes by which developmental programming may occur, and attempt to define these as ‘instigator’ and ‘effector’ mechanisms, according to their role in early adversity. We conclude with a brief discussion of some notable challenges that hinder the translation of this preclinical work.