Recognition of the important non-skeletal health effects of vitamin D has focused attention on the vitamin D status of individuals across the lifespan. To examine the vitamin D status of newborns, we measured serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) in the cord blood of 929 apparently healthy newborns in a population-based study in New Zealand, a country at 41°S latitude, with strong anti-skin cancer (sun avoidance) campaigns and without vitamin D food fortification. Randomly selected midwives in two regions recruited children. The median cord blood level of 25(OH)D was 44 nmol/l (interquartile range, 29–78 nmol/l). Overall, 19 % of newborns had 25(OH)D levels < 25 nmol/l and 57 % had levels < 50 nmol/l; only 27 % had levels of 75 nmol/l or higher, which are levels associated with optimal health in older children and adults. A multivariable ordinal logistic regression model showed that the strongest determinants of low vitamin D status were winter month of birth and non-European ethnicity. Other determinants of low cord blood 25(OH)D included longer gestational age, younger maternal age and a parental history of asthma. In summary, low levels of vitamin D are common among apparently healthy New Zealand newborns, and are independently associated with several easily identified factors. Although the optimal timing and dosage of vitamin D supplementation require further study, our findings may assist future efforts to correct low levels of 25(OH)D among New Zealand mothers and their newborn children.