Chronic obstructive respiratory disorders such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease often originate early in life. In addition to a genetic predisposition, prenatal and early-life environmental exposures have a persistent impact on respiratory health. Acting during a critical phase of lung development, these factors may change lung structure and metabolism, and may induce maladaptive responses to harmful agents, which will affect the whole lifespan. Some environmental factors, such as exposure to cigarette smoke, type of childbirth and diet, may be modifiable, but it is more difficult to influence other factors, such as preterm birth and early exposure to viruses or allergens. Here, we bring together recent literature to analyse the critical aspects involved in the early stages of lung development, going back to prenatal and perinatal events, and we discuss the mechanisms by which noxious factors encountered early on may have a lifelong impact on respiratory health. We briefly comment on the need for early disease biomarkers and on the possible role of ''-omic'' technologies in identifying risk profiles predictive of chronic respiratory conditions. Such profiles could guide the ideation of effective preventive strategies and/or targeted early lifestyle or therapeutic interventions.