The deficiency of Se, an essential micronutrient, has been implicated in adverse pregnancy outcomes. Our study was designed to determine total serum Se, selenoproteins (extracellular glutathione peroxidase (GPx-3), selenoprotein P (SeP)), selenoalbumin (SeAlb) and selenometabolites in healthy women and their newborns at delivery. This cross-sectional study included eighty-three healthy mother–baby couples. Total Se and Se species concentrations were measured in maternal and umbilical cord sera by an in-series coupling of two-dimensional size-exclusion and affinity HPLC. Additional measurements of serum SeP concentration and of serum GPx-3 enzyme activity were carried out using ELISA. Total Se concentration was significantly higher in maternal serum than in cord serum (68·9 (sd 15·2) and 56·1 (sd 14·6) µg/l, respectively; P<0·01). There were significant correlations between selenoprotein and SeAlb concentrations in mothers and newborns, although they also showed significant differences in GPx-3 (11·2 (sd 3·7) v. 10·5 (sd 3·5) µg/l; P<0·01), SeP (42·5 (sd 9·5) v. 28·1 (sd 7·7) µg/l; P<0·01) and SeAlb (11·6 (sd 3·6) v. 14·1 (sd 4·3) µg/l; P<0·01) concentrations in maternal and cord sera, respectively. Serum GPx-3 activity and concentration were positively correlated in mothers (r 0·33; P=0·038) but not in newborns. GPx-3 activity in cord serum was significantly correlated with gestational age (r 0·44; P=0·009). SeAlb concentration was significantly higher in babies, whereas SeP and GPx-3 concentrations were significantly higher in mothers. The differences cannot be explained by simple diffusion; specific transfer mechanisms are probably involved. GPx-3 concentrations in mothers, at delivery, are related to maternal Se status, whereas the GPx-3 activity in cord serum depends on gestational age.