Temporary confinement during parturition and early postpartum may provide an intermediary step preceding loose housing that offers improvement in sow and piglet welfare. Three experiments were conducted to investigate the implications of replacing farrowing crates (FCs) with an alternative housing system from 3 days postpartum until weaning. In each experiment sows farrowed in FCs and were randomly allocated at day 3 of lactation to either a FC or a pen with increased floor space (lactation pen (LP)) until weaning. In experiment 1, piglet growth and sow and piglet skin injuries were recorded for 32 sows and 128 focal piglets in these litters. Behaviour around nursing and piglet behavioural time budgets were also recorded for 24 of these litters (96 focal piglets for time budgets). In experiment 2, measures of skin injury and behavioural time budgets were conducted on 28 sows and 112 focal piglets. The behavioural response of sows to piglet vocalisation (maternal responsiveness test (MRT)) was also assessed. In experiment 3, piglet mortality from day 3 of lactation until weaning was recorded in 672 litters over 12 months. While housing did not affect piglet weight gain in experiment 1, or piglet skin injuries in experiments 1 or 2, sows in both experiments sustained more injuries in LP than FC (experiment 1, 2.9 v. 1.4; experiment 2, 2.5 v. 0.8 lesions/sow; P<0.05). Sow–piglet interactions were more frequent in LP than FC at days 11 and 18 postpartum in both experiment 1 (day 11, 1.4% v. 1.2%; day 18, 1.7% v. 1.0% of observations; P=0.05) and 2 (day 11, 1.0% v. 0.3%; and at day 18 were 1.0% v. 0.6% of observations; P<0.01), and LP sows were more responsive in the MRT in experiment 2 (2 v. 0 median number of tests in which sows react, P<0.01). In experiment 1 piglets played more (0.7% v. 0.3% of observations, P=0.05) and manipulated others less (0.3% v. 0.7% of observations, P=0.04) in LP, but more piglets missed nursing bouts (0.2 v. 0.1 piglets/bout, P<0.01) compared with FC. There was no effect of housing on piglet mortality from day 3 of lactation until weaning in experiment 3 (0.63 and 0.64 deaths/litter for LP and FC, respectively, P>0.05). Thus, housing sows and litters in LP from day 3 of lactation minimises piglet mortality while improving maternal behaviour in sows and social behaviour in piglets.