Iron is essential for the functioning of all cells and organs, most critically for the developing brain in the fundamental neuronal processes of myelination, energy and neurotransmitter metabolism. Iron deficiency, especially in the first 1000 days of life, can result in long-lasting, irreversible deficits in cognition, motor function and behaviour. Pregnant women, infants and young children are most vulnerable to iron deficiency, due to their high requirements to support growth and development, coupled with a frequently inadequate dietary supply. An unrecognised problem is that even if iron intake is adequate, common pregnancy-related and lifestyle factors can affect maternal–fetal iron supply in utero, resulting in an increased risk of deficiency for the mother and her fetus. Although preterm birth, gestational diabetes mellitus and intrauterine growth restriction are known risk factors, more recent evidence suggests that maternal obesity and delivery by caesarean section further increase the risk of iron deficiency in the newborn infant, which can persist into early childhood. Despite the considerable threat that early-life iron deficiency poses to long-term neurological development, life chances and a country's overall social and economic progress, strategies to tackle the issue are non-existent, too limited or totally inappropriate. Prevention strategies, focused on improving the health and nutritional status of women of reproductive age are required. Delayed cord clamping should be considered a priority. Better screening strategies to enable the early detection of iron deficiency during pregnancy and early-life should be prioritised, with intervention strategies to protect maternal health and the developing brain.