Research on mechanisms underlying fetal programming of health and disease risk has focused primarily on processes that are specific to cell types, organs or phenotypes of interest. However, the observation that developmental conditions concomitantly influence a diverse set of phenotypes, the majority of which are implicated in age-related disorders, raises the possibility that such developmental conditions may additionally exert effects via a common underlying mechanism that involves cellular/molecular ageing-related processes. In this context, we submit that telomere biology represents a process of particular interest in humans because, firstly, this system represents among the most salient antecedent cellular phenotypes for common age-related disorders; secondly, its initial (newborn) setting appears to be particularly important for its long-term effects; and thirdly, its initial setting appears to be plastic and under developmental regulation. We propose that the effects of suboptimal intrauterine conditions on the initial setting of telomere length and telomerase expression/activity capacity may be mediated by the programming actions of stress-related maternal-placental-fetal oxidative, immune, endocrine and metabolic pathways in a manner that may ultimately accelerate cellular dysfunction, ageing and disease susceptibility over the lifespan. This perspectives paper provides an overview of each of the elements underlying this hypothesis, with an emphasis on recent developments, findings and future directions.This article is part of the theme issue 'Understanding diversity in telomere dynamics'.