A remarkable epigenetic remodelling process occurs shortly after fertilization, which restores totipotency to the zygote. This involves global DNA demethylation, chromatin remodelling, genome spatial reorganization and substantial transcriptional changes. Key to these changes is the transition from the maternal environment of the oocyte to an embryonic-driven developmental expression programme, a process termed the maternal-to-zygotic transition (MZT). Zygotic genome activation occurs predominantly at the two-cell stage in mice and the eight-cell stage in humans, yet the dynamics of its control are still mostly obscure. In recent years, partly due to single-cell and low-cell number epigenomic studies, our understanding of the epigenetic and chromatin landscape of preimplantation development has improved considerably. In this Review, we discuss the latest advances in the study of the MZT, focusing on DNA methylation, histone post-translational modifications, local chromatin structure and higher-order genome organization. We also discuss key mechanistic studies that investigate the mode of action of chromatin regulators, transcription factors and non-coding RNAs during preimplantation development. Finally, we highlight areas requiring additional research, as well as new technological advances that could assist in eventually completing our understanding of the MZT.