1. Large-seeded species have long been known to have higher survivorship during establishment than small-seeded species. Here, we assessed the size of this advantage by compiling published data on survival through seedling emergence, seedling establishment and sapling establishment. 2. We found no relationship between seed mass and survival through the transition from viable seed in or on the soil to newly emerged seedlings (P = 0.47, n = 33 species). 3. Synthesis of data from experimental studies on the advantages of large-seeded species establishing under particular hazards (such as shade, drought or herbivory) confirmed that seedlings of large-seeded species perform better than those of small-seeded species in most situations. However, the magnitude of this advantage was not sufficient to counterbalance the greater number of seeds produced by small-seeded species m-2 of canopy outline year -1. 4. Synthesis of data from field studies of populations under natural conditions also showed that large-seeded species have higher survival through early seedling establishment than small-seeded species (P = 0.006, n = 112 species). However, the magnitude of this advantage would only be sufficient to counterbalance the greater number of seeds produced by small-seeded species m-2 of canopy outline year-1 if mortality continued at the same rate for some time. 5. The time required for a species with 10-fold larger seeds to recoup the advantage gained by a smaller-seeded species during seed production ranged from 8.8 weeks for the smallest seeded species in the data set, up to an implausible 4.2 years for the largest-seeded species. Thus, while large-seeded species do have a survival advantage over small-seeded species during seedling establishment, the available evidence suggests that advantages must also accrue during other stages in the life cycle. One possibility is that the greater seed production of small-seeded species (m-2 of canopy outline year-1) is partly offset by larger canopies and longer reproductive life spans in large-seeded species.