Insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) play an important role in mammary gland development and their effects are, in turn, influenced by a family of 6 IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs). The IGFBPs are expressed in time- and tissue-specific fashion during the periods of rapid growth and involution of the mammary gland. The precise roles of these proteins in vivo have, however, been difficult to determine. This review examines the indirect evidence (evolution, chromosomal location and roles in lower life-forms) the evidence from in vitro studies and the attempts to examine their roles in vivo, using IGFBP-deficient and over-expression models. Evidence exists for a role of the IGFBPs in inhibition of the survival effects of IGFs as well as in IGF-enhancing effects from in vitro studies. The location of the IGFBPs, often associated with the extracellular matrix, suggests roles as a reservoir of IGFs or as a potential barrier, restricting access of IGFs to distinct cellular compartments. We also discuss the relative importance of IGF-dependent versus IGF-independent effects. IGF-independent effects include nuclear localization, activation of proteases and interaction with a variety of extracellular matrix and cell surface proteins. Finally, we examine the increasing evidence for the IGFBPs to be considered as part of a larger family of extracellular matrix proteins involved in morphogenesis and tissue re-modeling.