Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are small DNA tumour viruses associated with a variety of proliferative diseases. More than 100 types have been identified and can broadly be grouped into cutaneous and mucosal types according to their site of infection, and can be further subdivided into low-risk (LR) and high-risk (HR) types depending upon their association with malignancy. The main route of transmission of HR mucosal HPVs is through sexual contact, although the acquisition of virus cannot be entirely explained by this mode alone. Evidence also exists for horizontal transmission by other routes and vertical transmission. HR HPVs, particularly HPV-16, have been detected in oral swabs from newborns, infants and children. Such alternative modes of transmission and acquisition may have an important impact in several areas, including vaccination strategies, epidemiological studies, and the clinical management of children with HPV-associated diseases. This article reviews the literature describing the detection of HPV infections during infancy and childhood and provides evidence for a role of vertical transmission in the spread of HPV infection.