In diverse animal taxa, egg mass variation mediates maternal effects with long-term consequences for offspring ontogeny and fitness. Patterns of egg mass variation with laying order differ considerably among birds, but no study has experimentally investigated the function of variation in albumen or yolk egg content in the wild. In barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), absolute and relative albumen mass increased with egg laying order. Experimental albumen removal delayed hatching, had larger negative effects on growth of late-hatched nestlings, and reduced nestling survival. Laying order positively predicted hatch order. Because nestling competitive ability depends on size, and albumen egg content influences hatchling size, present results suggest that by increasing albumen content of late eggs mothers reduce hatching asynchrony and enhance growth particularly of late-hatched nestlings. Thus, variation in albumen mass with laying order may function to mitigate the negative phenotypic consequences of hatching late in species that adopt a ‘brood-survival’ strategy.