Interaction with colonizing intestinal bacteria is essential for healthy intestinal and immunological development in infancy. Advances in understanding early host-microbe interactions indicate that this early microbial programming begins in utero and is substantially modulated by mode of birth, perinatal antibiotics and breastfeeding. Furthermore, it has become evident that this stepwise microbial colonization process, as well as immune and metabolic programming by the microbiota, might have a long-lasting influence on the risk of not only gastrointestinal disease, but also allergic, autoimmune and metabolic disease, in later life. Modulating early host-microbe interaction by maternal probiotic intervention during pregnancy and breastfeeding offers a promising novel tool to reduce the risk of disease. In this Review, we describe the current body of knowledge regarding perinatal microbial contact, initial intestinal colonization and its association with human disease, as well as means of modulating early host-microbe interaction to reduce the risk of disease in the child.