Acute kidney injury (AKI) is a common and life-threatening complication in critically ill neonates. Gestational risk factors for AKI include premature birth, intrauterine growth restriction and low birthweight, which are associated with poor nephron development and are often the consequence of pre-gestational and gestational factors, such as poor nutritional status. Our understanding of how to best optimize renal development and prevent AKI is in its infancy; however, the identification of pre-gestational and gestational factors that increase the risk of adverse neonatal outcomes and the implementation of interventions, such as improving nutritional status early in pregnancy, have the potential to optimize fetal growth and reduce the risk of preterm birth, thereby improving kidney health. The overall risk of AKI among critically ill and premature neonates is exacerbated postnatally as these infants are often exposed to dehydration, septic shock and potentially nephrotoxic medications. Strategies to improve outcomes - for example, through careful evaluation of nephrotoxic drugs - may reduce the incidence of AKI and its consequences among this population. Management strategies and updated technology that will support neonates with AKI are greatly needed. Extremely premature infants and those who survive an episode of AKI should be screened for chronic kidney disease until early adulthood. Here, we provide an overview of our current understanding of neonatal AKI, focusing on its relationship to preterm birth and growth restriction. We describe factors that prevent optimal nephrogenesis during pregnancy and provide a framework for future explorations designed to maximize outcomes in this vulnerable population.