The morphological and functional development of the vertebrate nervous system is initially governed by genetic factors and subsequently refined by neuronal activity. However, fundamental features of the nervous system emerge before sensory experience is possible. Thus, activity-dependent development occurring before the onset of experience must be driven by spontaneous activity, but the origin and nature of activity in vivo remains largely untested. Here we use optical methods to show in live neonatal mice that waves of spontaneous retinal activity are present and propagate throughout the entire visual system before eye opening. This patterned activity encompassed the visual field, relied on cholinergic neurotransmission, preferentially initiated in the binocular retina and exhibited spatiotemporal correlations between the two hemispheres. Retinal waves were the primary source of activity in the midbrain and primary visual cortex, but only modulated ongoing activity in secondary visual areas. Thus, spontaneous retinal activity is transmitted through the entire visual system and carries patterned information capable of guiding the activity-dependent development of complex intra- and inter-hemispheric circuits before the onset of vision.