Carotenoids are increasingly being implicated to have an important role in brain and eye development. This study aimed to quantify the content and profile of carotenoids in human breast milk, maternal plasma and neonatal umbilical cord plasma in Chengdu, an urban area in Southwest China. In this study, fifty-four healthy mothers were enrolled. Maternal blood, umbilical cord blood, colostrum, transitional milk and mature milk were collected. Concentrations of carotenoids (lutein, zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, β-carotene and lycopene) were analysed by HPLC. We found that carotenoid concentrations decreased from colostrum to mature milk. Hydrocarbon carotenoids with weaker polarity decreased more than the polar carotenoids. Lycopene concentrations dropped by 99 %, β-carotene by 92 %, β-cryptoxanthin by 83 %, lutein by 32 % and zeaxanthin by 22 %. Lycopene and β-carotene accounted for 70 % of the total carotenoids in colostrum, and lutein predominated amongst carotenoids in transitional milk and mature milk (51–55 %). Carotenoid concentrations in maternal plasma were much higher than that in cord plasma. Lutein predominated in cord plasma. The concentrations of all carotenoids in maternal plasma were correlated with those of cord plasma and human milk. These results are consistent with selective transport mechanisms in the mammary gland related to the polarity of carotenoids, and each carotenoid has its own implications, which may have different priorities in the early life development of infants. These findings may help guide dietary recommendations for carotenoid inclusion in infant formulas.