Ethanolamine (Etn) contained in milk is the base constituent of phosphatidylethanolamine and is required for the proliferation of intestinal epithelial cells and bacteria, which is important for maintenance of the gut microbiome and intestinal development. The present study investigated the effect of Etn on intestinal function and microbiome using 21-d-old Sprague–Dawley rats treated with 0, 250, 500 and 1000 μm Etn in drinking water for 2 weeks immediately after weaning. Growth performance, intestinal morphology, antioxidant capacity and mucosal immunity, as well as gut microbiota community composition, were evaluated. Metagenomic prediction and metabolic phenotype analysis based on 16S RNA sequencing were also carried out to assess changes in metabolic functions. We found that weaned rats administered 500 μm Etn enhanced mucosal antioxidant capacity, as evidenced by higher superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase levels in the jejunum (P<0·05) compared with those in the control group. Predominant microbes including Bacteroidetes, Proteobacteria, Elusimicrobia and Tenericutes were altered by different levels of Etn compared with the control group. An Etn concentration of 500 µm shifted colonic microbial metabolic functions that are in favour of lipid- and sugar-related metabolism and biosynthesis. Etn also altered the metabolic phenotypes such as anaerobic microbial counts, and oxidative stress tolerance at over 250 µm. This is the first report for a role of Etn in modifying gut microbiota and intestinal functions. Our findings highlighted the important role of Etn in shaping gut microbial community and promotes intestinal functions, which may provide a better insight of breast-feeding to infant’s gut health.