Evidence from developed countries has linked family violence with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), yet no similar studies have been conducted in developing countries where the risk of SAM is higher. To redress this gap, the objective of this study was to explore the role of intimate partner violence (IPV) among caregivers as an independent risk factor for SAM. A hospital-based case-control (n = 172 : 345) study was carried out in six paediatric hospitals of Rio de Janeiro (1995-99). Cases comprised children (1-24 months) admitted with SAM (weight-for-height z-score < -2 SD). Controls were children of the same age admitted for non-traumatic surgery. Couple violence was gauged through the Conflict Tactics Scales from two perspectives: (a) two ordinal variables characterising the intensity of verbal and physical aggression based on scores, and (b) a four-level variable representing a pattern of increasing violence seriousness. Unconditional logistic regression analysis was performed to control for confounding factors. Parents of SAM cases had higher Conflict Tactics scores than parents of controls, indicating more severe partner violence. The adjusted odds ratio for the comparison of the highest to the lowest scores (10 vs. 0) was 4.15 (95% confidence interval 1.55, 11.15). Using the four-level variable for violence seriousness, a threefold SAM risk was found for children with parents reporting severe physical abuse, but not for those with parents reporting verbal aggression or more minor physical assaults. In addition to traditionally studied risk factors, the findings suggest that family violence may also play an important role in SAM among children. Moreover, these findings indicate that the risk for SAM is not associated with all types of IPV, but that children exposed to severe and recurrent events are more likely to be admitted for SAM. For the prevention or early detection of SAM, this result points to a specific population group requiring rigorous public health targeting, especially in terms of accurate detection of both SAM and IPV, as well as appropriate handling and follow-up of violent families.