Inflammation has been implicated in a wide variety of neurological disorders and there is increasing evidence for long-term consequences of inflammation during early brain development. A number of immune mediators, termed neuropoietic cytokines, have a role in normal brain development. Neuropoietic cytokines contribute to proliferation of neural precursors; fate determination and differentiation; migration of neurons and glia; as well as cell survival and activity dependent alteration of synaptic function. Inflammation during development, therefore, may cause widespread injury to the brain by interfering with the normal balance of cytokine signalling and therefore developmental processes. This review will examine the normal role of neuropoietic cytokines and the potential contribution of inflammatory insults to a number of neurodevelopmental disorders. It will also discuss the potential for developmental inflammation to sensitise the brain to later insult, possibly contributing to neurodegenerative disorders later in life. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled ‘Neuroinflammation in neurodegeneration and neurodysfunction’.