Background: Studies on HPV infection in pregnant women and HPV transmission to the child have yielded inconsistent results. Methods: To estimate mother-to-child HPV transmission we carried out a prospective cohort study that included 66 HPV-positive and 77 HPV-negative pregnant women and their offspring attending a maternity hospital in Barcelona. To estimate HPV prevalence and genotype distribution in pregnancy we also carried out a related screening survey of cervical HPV-DNA detection among 828 pregnant women. Cervical cells from the mother were collected at pregnancy (mean of 31 weeks) and at the 6-week post-partum visit. Exfoliated cells from the mouth and external genitalia of the infants were collected around birth, at the 6-week post-partum visit, and around 3, 6, 12, and 24 months of age. All samples were tested for HPV using PCR. Associations between potential determinants of HPV infection in pregnant women and of HPV positivity in infants were also explored by logistic regression modelling. Results: Overall cervical HPV-DNA detection in pregnant women recruited in the HPV screening survey was 6.5% (54/828). Sexual behavior-related variables, previous histories of genital warts or sexually transmitted infections, and presence of cytological abnormalities were statistically significantly and positively associated with HPV DNA detection in pregnant women recruited in the cohort. At 418 infant visits and a mean follow-up time of 14 months, 19.7% of infants born to HPV-positive mothers and 16.9% of those born to HPV-negative mothers tested HPV positive at some point during infants' follow-up. The most frequently detected genotype both in infants and mothers was HPV-16, after excluding untyped HPV infections. We found a strong and statistically significant association between mother's and child's HPV status at the 6-week post-partum visit. Thus, children of mothers' who were HPV-positive at the post-partum visit were about 5 times more likely to test HPV-positive than children of corresponding HPV-negative mothers (p = 0.02). Conclusion: This study confirms that the risk of vertical transmission of HPV genotypes is relatively low. HPV persistence in infants is a rare event. These data also indicate that vertical transmission may not be the sole source of HPV infections in infants and provides partial evidence for horizontal mother-to-child HPV transmission. © 2009 Castellsagué et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.