Vertical transmission of bacteria from mother to infant at birth is postulated to initiate a life-long host-microbe symbiosis, playing an important role in early infant development. However, only the tracking of strictly defined unique microbial strains can clarify where the intestinal bacteria come from, how long the initial colonizers persist, and whether colonization by other strains from the environment can replace existing ones. Using rare single nucleotide variants in fecal metagenomes of infants and their family members, we show strong evidence of selective and persistent transmission of maternal strain populations to the vaginally born infant and their occasional replacement by strains from the environment, including those from family members, in later childhood. Only strains from the classes Actinobacteria and Bacteroidia, which are essential components of the infant microbiome, are transmitted from the mother and persist for at least 1 yr. In contrast, maternal strains of Clostridia, a dominant class in the mother’s gut microbiome, are not observed in the infant. Caesarean-born infants show a striking lack of maternal transmission at birth. After the first year, strain influx from the family environment occurs and continues even in adulthood. Fathers appear to be more frequently donors of novel strains to other family members than receivers. Thus, the infant gut is seeded by selected maternal bacteria, which expand to form a stable community, with a rare but stable continuing strain influx over time.