Nutritional status is the best global indicator of well-being in children. Although many surveys of children have been conducted since the 1970s, lack of comparability between them has made it difficult to monitor trends in child malnutrition. Cross-sectional data from 241 nationally representative surveys were analysed in a standard way to produce comparable results of low height-for-age (stunting). Multilevel modelling was applied to estimate regional and global trends from 1980 to 2005. The prevalence of stunting has fallen in developing countries from 47% in 1980 to 33% in 2000 (i.e. by 40 million), although progress has been uneven according to regions. Stunting has increased in Eastern Africa, but decreased in South-eastern Asia, South-central Asia and South America; Northern Africa and the Caribbean show modest improvement; and Western Africa and Central America present very little progress. Despite an overall decrease of stunting in developing countries, child malnutrition still remains a major public health problem in these countries. In some countries rates of stunting are rising, while in many others they remain disturbingly high. The data we have presented provide a baseline for assessing progress and help identify countries and regions in need of populationwide interventions. Approaches to lower child malnutrition should be based on successful nutrition programmes and policies.