Introduction: Life-history theory predicts that organisms trade off survival against reproduction. However, the time scales on which various consequences become evident and the physiology mediating the cost of reproduction remain poorly understood. Yet, explaining not only which mechanisms mediate this trade-off, but also how fast or slow the mechanisms act, is crucial for an improved understanding of life-history evolution. We investigated three time scales on which an experimental increase in body mass could affect this trade-off: within broods, within season and between years. We handicapped adult skylarks (Alauda arvensis) by attaching extra weight during first broods to both adults of a pair. We measured body mass, immune function and return rates in these birds. We also measured nest success, feeding rates, diet composition, nestling size, nestling immune function and recruitment rates. Results: When nestlings of first broods fledged, parent body condition had not changed, but experimental birds experienced higher nest failure. Depending on the year, immune parameters of nestlings from experimental parents were either higher or lower than of control nestlings. Later, when parents were feeding their second brood, the balance between self-maintenance and nest success had shifted. Control and experimental adults differed in immune function, while mass and immune function of their nestlings did not differ. Although weights were removed after breeding, immune measurements during the second brood had the capacity to predict return rates to the next breeding season. Among birds that returned the next year, body condition and reproductive performance a year after the experiment did not differ between treatment groups. Conclusions: We conclude that the balance between current reproduction and survival shifts from affecting nestlings to affecting parents as the reproductive season progresses. Furthermore, immune function is apparently one physiological mechanism involved in this trade-off. By unravelling a physiological mechanism underlying the trade-offs between current and future reproduction and by demonstrating the different time scales on which it acts, our study represents an important step in understanding a central theory of life-history evolution.