BACKGROUND: It is well known that the time from conception to early childhood has importance for health conditions that reach into later stages of life. Recent research supports this view, and diseases such as cardiovascular morbidity, cancer, mental illnesses, asthma, and allergy may all have component causes that act early in life. Exposures in this period, which influence fetal growth, cell divisions, and organ functioning, may have long-lasting impact on health and disease susceptibility. METHODS: To investigate these issues the Danish National Birth Cohort (Better health for mother and child) was established. A large cohort of pregnant women with long-term follow-up of the offspring was the obvious choice because many of the exposures of interest cannot be reconstructed with sufficient validity back in time. The study needs to be large, and it is aimed to recruit 100,000 women early in pregnancy, and to continue follow-up for decades. The Nordic countries are better suited for this kind of research than most other countries because of their population-based registers on diseases, demography and social conditions, linkable at the individual level by means of the unique ID-number given to all citizens. Exposure information is mainly collected by computer-assisted telephone interviews with the women twice during pregnancy and when their children are six and 18 months old. Participants are also asked to fill in a self-administered food frequency questionnaire in mid-pregnancy. Furthermore, a biological bank has been set up with blood taken from the mother twice during pregnancy and blood from the umbilical cord taken shortly after birth. Data collection started in 1996 and the project covered all regions in Denmark in 1999. By August 2000. a total of 60,000 pregnant women had been recruited to the study. It is expected that a large number of gene-environmental hypotheses need to be based on case-control analyses within a cohort like this.