Low vitamin D levels during pregnancy may account for reduced fetal growth and for altered neonatal development. The present study explored the association between maternal vitamin D status measured early in pregnancy and birth weight, prevalence of small-for-gestational-age (SGA) infants and postnatal growth (weight and length), as well as the potential role of vitamin D status in explaining ethnic disparities in these outcomes. Data were derived from a large multi-ethnic cohort in The Netherlands (Amsterdam Born Children and their Development (ABCD) cohort), and included 3730 women with live-born singleton term deliveries. Maternal serum vitamin D was measured during early pregnancy (median 13 weeks, interquartile range: 12–14), and was labelled ‘deficient’ ( ≤ 29·9 nmol/l), ‘insufficient’ (30–49·9 nmol/l) or ‘adequate’ ( ≥ 50 nmol/l). Six ethnic groups were distinguished: Dutch, Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccan, other non-Western and other Western. Associations with neonatal outcomes were analysed using multivariate regression analyses. Results showed that compared with women with adequate vitamin D levels, women with deficient vitamin D levels had infants with lower birth weights ( − 114·4 g, 95 % CI − 151·2, − 77·6) and a higher risk of SGA (OR 2·4, 95 % CI 1·9, 3·2). Neonates born to mothers with a deficient vitamin D status showed accelerated growth in weight and length during the first year of life. Although a deficient vitamin D status influenced birth weight, SGA risk and neonatal growth, it played a limited role in explaining ethnic differences. Although vitamin D supplementation might be beneficial to those at risk of a deficient vitamin D status, more research is needed before a nationwide policy on the subject can be justified.