The objective of the present study was to investigate the effects of the addition of fibre and the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) to fat-rich diets on fetal intrauterine development in rats. A total of eighty virgin female Sprague–Dawley rats were fed a control diet, a high-fat diet (HF), a high-fat and high-fibre diet (HFF) or a high-fat NAC diet until day 19·5 of gestation. Maternal HFF consumption resulted in a significantly higher mean fetal number and placental weight than in the other groups (P < 0·05). The HFF diet significantly abrogated HF-induced decreases in maternal serum and placental superoxide anion and hydroxyl radical scavenging capacities (P < 0·05); partially abrogated HF-induced increases in maternal serum and placental malondialdehyde (MDA) and protein carbonyl concentrations (maternal serum MDA and placental protein carbonyl, P < 0·05); resulted in significantly higher fetal liver total superoxide dismutase (SOD), Cu- and Zn-containing SOD and Mn-containing SOD (Mn-SOD) activities than in the HF group (P < 0·05). Furthermore, mRNA expressions of hypoxia-inducible factor 1-α, thioredoxin 2 and Mn-SOD in fetal liver and Mn-SOD in fetal heart and placental GLUT3 in the HFF group were higher than those in the other groups (P < 0·05). The inclusion of dietary fibre in the HF diet was more effective than NAC supplementation in maintaining maternal serum and placental superoxide anion and hydroxyl radical scavenging capacities close to those of the control. These results suggest that maternal fibre intake during pregnancy is beneficial for fetal intrauterine development possibly through the improvement of maternal, placental and fetal antioxidant capacities and placental nutrient transfer capacity.