BACKGROUND Preterm birth occurs in 5%-13% of pregnancies. It is a leading cause of perinatal mortality and morbidity and has adverse long-term consequences for the health of the child. Because of the role selenium plays in attenuating inflammation, and because low concentrations of selenium have been found in women with preeclampsia, we hypothesized that low maternal selenium status during early gestation would increase the risk of preterm birth. METHODS White Dutch women with a singleton pregnancy (n = 1197) were followed prospectively from 12 weeks' gestation. Women with thyroid disease or type 1 diabetes were excluded. At delivery, 1129 women had complete birth-outcome data. Serum concentrations of selenium were measured during the 12th week of pregnancy. Deliveries were classified as preterm or term, and preterm births were subcategorized as iatrogenic, spontaneous or the result of premature rupture of the membranes. RESULTS Of the 60 women (5.3%) who had a preterm birth, 21 had premature rupture of the membranes and 13 had preeclampsia. The serum selenium concentration at 12 weeks' gestation was significantly lower among women who had a preterm birth than among those who delivered at term (mean 0.96 [standard deviation (SD) 0.14] μmol/L v. 1.02 [SD 0.13] μmol/L; t = 2.9, p = 0.001). Women were grouped by quartile of serum selenium concentration at 12 weeks' gestation. The number of women who had a preterm birth significantly differed by quartile (χ² = 8.01, 3 degrees of freedom], p < 0.05). Women in the lowest quartile of serum selenium had twice the risk of preterm birth as women in the upper three quartiles, even after adjustment for the occurrence of preeclampsia (adjusted odds ratio 2.18, 95% confidence interval 1.25-3.77). INTERPRETATION Having low serum selenium at the end of the first trimester was related to preterm birth and was independent of the mother having preeclampsia. Low maternal selenium status during early gestation may increase the risk of preterm premature rupture of the membranes, which is a major cause of preterm birth.