Preterm birth is a serious global health problem and is the leading cause of death in infants younger than 5 years of age. At least 40% of cases are associated with infection. It is thought that the most common way for pathogens to access the uterine cavity is by ascending from the vagina. Bioluminescent pathogens have revolutionized the understanding of infectious diseases. We hypothesized that bioluminescent Escherichia coli can be used to track and monitor ascending vaginal infections in pregnant mice. Two different strains of bioluminescent E. coli were studied: E. coli K12 MG1655-lux, a nonpathogenic laboratory strain, and E. coli K1 A192PP-lux2, a pathogenic strain capable of causing neonatal meningitis and sepsis in neonatal rats. On embryonic day 16, mice received intravaginal E. coli K12, E. coli K1, or phosphate-buffered saline followed by whole-body bioluminescent imaging. In both cases, intravaginal delivery of E. coli K12 or E. coli K1 led to bacterial ascension into the uterine cavity, but only E. coli K1 induced preterm parturition. Intravaginal administration of E. coli K1 significantly reduced the proportion of pups born alive compared with E. coli K12 and phosphate-buffered saline controls. However, in both groups of viable pups born after bacterial inoculation, there was evidence of comparable brain inflammation by postnatal day 6. This study ascribes specific mechanisms by which exposure to intrauterine bacteria lead to premature delivery and neurologic inflammation in the neonates.