Preterm birth (delivery at less than 37 weeks of gestation) is the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide. So far, the application of animal models to understand human birth timing has not substantially revealed mechanisms that could be used to prevent prematurity. However, with amassing data implicating an important role for genetics in the timing of the onset of human labor, the use of modern genomic approaches, such as genome-wide association studies, rare variant analyses using whole-exome or genome sequencing, and family-based designs, holds enormous potential. Although some progress has been made in the search for causative genes and variants associated with preterm birth, the major genetic determinants remain to be identified. Here, we review insights from and limitations of animal models for understanding the physiology of parturition, recent human genetic and genomic studies to identify genes involved in preterm birth, and emerging areas that are likely to be informative in future investigations. Further advances in understanding fundamental mechanisms, and the development of preventative measures, will depend upon the acquisition of greater numbers of carefully phenotyped pregnancies, large-scale informatics approaches combining genomic information with information on environmental exposures, and new conceptual models for studying the interaction between the maternal and fetal genomes to personalize therapies for mothers and infants. Information emerging from these advances will help us to identify new biomarkers for earlier detection of preterm labor, develop more effective therapeutic agents, and/or promote prophylactic measures even before conception.