In 432, Emperor Taiwu created Tuoba Huang crown prince, at the same time that he created one of his consorts, Consort Helian, empress. He became a highly ranked official in his father's administration that same year, although, at age four, the position was likely nominal. In 433, Emperor Taiwu tried to negotiate a marriage between Crown Prince Huang and one of the daughters of Emperor Wen of Liu Song, but Emperor Wen, while not immediately rejecting the proposal, did not agree either.
In 439, when Emperor Taiwu was on a campaign to conquer Northern Liang, he had Crown Prince Huang assume imperial authority at the capital Pingcheng (平城, in modern Datong, Shanxi), assisted by the high-ranking official Qiumuling Shou (丘穆陵壽), to guard against a Rouran attack. However, Qiumuling, not believing that Rouran would actually attack, took little actual precautions, and when Rouran's Chilian Khan Yujiulü Wuti attacked, Pingcheng was caught nearly defenseless. Qiumuling wanted to escort Crown Prince Huang to the hills south of Pingcheng and take up defense position there, but at the opposition of Emperor Taiwu's wet nurse Empress Dowager Dou, Crown Prince Huang remained in Pingcheng, and when Northern Wei forces subsequently defeated Rouran forces, Yujiulü Wuti was forced to withdraw. (By this point, although he was only 11, Crown Prince Huang was apparently already participating in major military and policy decisions, as he had opposed his father's Northern Liang campaign, but was overruled by his father, who trusted Cui Hao's advice that Northern Liang was easily defeatable.)
By 442, Crown Prince Huang appeared to be already a devout Buddhist, and when his father, at the suggestion of Cui and the Taoist monk Kou Qianzhi, built the very high and difficult-to-construct Jinglun Palace (靜輪宮), he tried to oppose on account of cost, but Emperor Taiwu did not agree.
In 443, Crown Prince Huang accompanied his father on a campaign against Rouran, and when theysuddenly encountered Yujiulü Wuti, Crown Prince Huang advised an immediate attack, but Emperor Taiwu hesitated, allowing Yujiulü Wuti to escape. From that point on, Emperor Taiwu began to listen to Crown Prince Huang's advice in earnest, and in winter 443, he authorized Crown Prince Huang to carry out all imperial duties except the most important ones, under assistance from Qiumuling, Cui, Zhang Li (張黎), and Tuxi Bi (吐奚弼). Crown Prince Huang soon instituted a policy to encourage farming -- by mandatorily requiring those who had extra cattle to loan them to those without, to be animals of burden, with the lease being paid for by those without cattle by tilling the grounds of the cattle owners, increasing the efficiency of the farmlands greatly.
By 450, Crown Prince Huang appeared to be in direct conflict with Cui over administration of the state. When Cui recommended a number of men to be commandery governors, Crown Prince Huang objected strenuously, and yet the men were commissioned over his objection at Cui's insistence. It appeared that Crown Prince Huang had a hand when, later in 450, Cui was put to death with his entire clan, on account of having defamed imperial ancestors, as Crown Prince Huang argued hard to spare one of Cui's staff members, Gao Yun, and during that process, Gao gave some statements regarding Cui that could be viewed either as exculpatory or inculpatory.
In fall of 450, when Liu Song's Emperor Wen sent his general Wang Xuanmo (王玄謨) to attack Huatai (滑台, in modern Anyang, Henan), Emperor Taiwu personally led an army to relieve Huatai, and subsequently, after defeating Wang, advanced deeply into Liu Song territory, all the way to the Yangtze River. During Emperor Taiwu's campaign against Liu Song, pursuant to his instructions, Crown Prince Huang was on the northern border, defending against a potential Rouran attack.
Emperor Taiwu soon became aware that Crown Prince Huang was not involved in any crimes, and he regretted his actions greatly. Around the new year 451, he created Crown Prince Huang's oldest son Tuoba Jun the Prince of Gaoyang, but soon removed that title on the account that the crown prince's oldest son should not be a mere imperial prince -- a strong sign that he was intending to create Tuoba Jun crown prince eventually. Zong, in fear that Emperor Taiwu would punish him, assassinated Emperor Taiwu in spring 452, and then seized power, killing a number of officials and Crown Prince Huang's younger brother Tuoba Han (拓拔翰) the Prince of Dongping, while making another younger brother of Crown Prince Huang's, Tuoba Yu the Prince of Nan'an emperor. Zong controlled the imperial regime, and when Tuoba Yu tried to assert his own power in fall 452, Zong assassinated him as well. Officials led by Yuan He, Baba Kehou (拔拔渴侯), Dugu Ni (獨孤尼), and Buliugu Li rose against Zong and killed him, making Tuoba Jun emperor, and Tuoba Jun, after he took the throne as Emperor Wencheng, posthumously honored Tuoba Huang as an emperor.