BACKGROUND: Members of the family Syngnathidae share a unique reproductive mode termed male pregnancy. Males carry eggs in specialised brooding structures for several weeks and release free-swimming offspring. Here we describe a systematic investigation of pre-release development in syngnathid fishes, reviewing available data for 17 species distributed across the family. This work is complemented by in-depth examinations of the straight-nosed pipefish Nerophis ophidion, the black-striped pipefish Syngnathus abaster, and the potbellied seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis. RESULTS: We propose a standardised classification of early syngnathid development that extends from the activation of the egg to the release of newborn. The classification consists of four developmental periods - early embryogenesis, eye development, snout formation, and juvenile - which are further divided into 11 stages. Stages are characterised by morphological traits that are easily visible in live and preserved specimens using incident-light microscopy. CONCLUSIONS: Our classification is derived from examinations of species representing the full range of brooding-structure complexity found in the Syngnathidae, including tail-brooding as well as trunk-brooding species, which represent independent evolutionary lineages. We chose conspicuous common traits as diagnostic features of stages to allow for rapid and consistent staging of embryos and larvae across the entire family. In view of the growing interest in the biology of the Syngnathidae, we believe that the classification proposed here will prove useful for a wide range of studies on the unique reproductive biology of these male-brooding fish.