Current understanding of biologic processes indicates that women's nutritional status before and during early pregnancy may play an important role in determining early developmental processes and ensuring successful pregnancy outcomes. We conducted a systematic review of the evidence for the impact of maternal nutrition before and during early pregnancy (<12 weeks gestation) on maternal, neonatal and child health outcomes and included 45 articles (nine intervention trials and 32 observational studies) that were identified through PubMed and EMBASE database searches and examining review articles. Intervention trials and observational studies show that periconceptional (<12 weeks gestation) folic acid supplementation significantly reduced the risk of neural tube defects. Observational studies suggest that preconceptional and periconceptional intake of vitamin and mineral supplements is associated with a reduced risk of delivering offspring who are low birthweight and/or small-for-gestational age (SGA) and preterm deliveries (PTD). Some studies report that indicators of maternal prepregnancy size, low stature, underweight and overweight are associated with increased risks of PTD and SGA. The available data indicate the importance of women's nutrition prior to and during the first trimester of pregnancy, but there is a need for well-designed prospective studies and controlled trials in developing country settings that examine relationships with low birthweight, SGA, PTD, stillbirth and maternal and neonatal mortality. The knowledge gaps that need to be addressed include the evaluation of periconceptional interventions such as food supplements, multivitamin-mineral supplements and/or specific micronutrients (iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B-6 and B-12) as well as the relationship between measures of prepregnancy body size and composition and maternal, neonatal and child health outcomes.