BACKGROUND: Low- and middle-income countries continue to experience a large burden of stunting; 148 million children were estimated to be stunted, around 30-40% of all children in 2011. In many of these countries, foetal growth restriction (FGR) is common, as is subsequent growth faltering in the first 2 years. Although there is agreement that stunting involves both prenatal and postnatal growth failure, the extent to which FGR contributes to stunting and other indicators of nutritional status is uncertain. METHODS: Using extant longitudinal birth cohorts (n = 19) with data on birthweight, gestational age and child anthropometry (12-60 months), we estimated study-specific and pooled risk estimates of stunting, wasting and underweight by small-for-gestational age (SGA) and preterm birth. RESULTS: We grouped children according to four combinations of SGA and gestational age: adequate size-for-gestational age (AGA) and preterm; SGA and term; SGA and preterm; and AGA and term (the reference group). Relative to AGA and term, the OR (95% confidence interval) for stunting associated with AGA and preterm, SGA and term, and SGA and preterm was 1.93 (1.71, 2.18), 2.43 (2.22, 2.66) and 4.51 (3.42, 5.93), respectively. A similar magnitude of risk was also observed for wasting and underweight. Low birthweight was associated with 2.5-3.5-fold higher odds of wasting, stunting and underweight. The population attributable risk for overall SGA for outcomes of childhood stunting and wasting was 20% and 30%, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: This analysis estimates that childhood undernutrition may have its origins in the foetal period, suggesting a need to intervene early, ideally during pregnancy, with interventions known to reduce FGR and preterm birth.