Folate status for women during early pregnancy has been investigated, but data for women during mid-pregnancy, late pregnancy or lactation are sparse or lacking. Between May and July 2014, we conducted a cross-sectional study in 1211 pregnant and lactating women from three representative regions in China. Approximately 135 women were enrolled in each stratum by physiological periods (mid-pregnancy, late pregnancy or lactation) and regions (south, central or north). Plasma folate concentrations were measured by microbiological assay. The adjusted medians of folate concentration decreased from 28·8 (interquartile range (IQR) 19·9, 38·2) nmol/l in mid-pregnancy to 18·6 (IQR 13·2, 26·4) nmol/l in late pregnancy, and to 17·0 (IQR 12·3, 22·5) nmol/l in lactation (Pfor trend < 0·001). Overall, lower folate concentrations were more likely to be observed in women residing in the northern region, with younger age, higher pre-pregnancy BMI, lower education or multiparity, and in lactating women who had undergone a Caesarean delivery or who were breastfeeding exclusively. In total, 380 (31·4 %) women had a suboptimal folate status (folate concentration <13·5 nmol/l). Women in late pregnancy and lactating, residing in the northern region, having multiparity and low education level had a higher risk of suboptimal folate status, while those with older age had a lower risk. In conclusion, maternal plasma folate concentrations decreased as pregnancy progressed, and were influenced by geographic region and maternal socio-demographic characteristics. Future studies are warranted to assess the necessity of folic acid supplementation during later pregnancy and lactation especially for women at a higher risk of folate depletion.