Cognitively delayed children are at risk for poor mental and physical health throughout their lives. The economically disadvantaged and some race/ethnic groups are more likely to experience cognitive delay, but the age at which delays first emerge and the underlying mechanisms responsible for disparities are not well understood. The objective of this study was to determine when sociodemographic disparities in cognitive functioning emerge, and identify predictors of low cognitive functioning in early childhood. Data were from 7308 singleton and 1463 multiple births in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a nationally representative cohort of children born in the USA in 2001. Multiple logistic regression analyses examined associations between sociodemographic characteristics and low cognitive functioning at 9 and 24 months, and tested whether gestational and birth-related factors mediate these associations. Sociodemographic characteristics were statistically significant predictors of low cognitive functioning among singletons at 24 months, including the three lowest quintiles of socio-economic status [lowest quintile, odds ratio (OR) = 2.7, 95% confidence interval [CI][1.7, 4.1]], non-white race/ethnicity (African American OR = 1.8 [95% CI 1.3, 2.5], Hispanic OR = 2.3 [95% CI 1.6, 3.2]), and gender (male OR = 2.1, [95% CI 1.7, 2.5]). Gestational and birth characteristics associated with low cognitive function at 9 months included very low and moderately low birthweight (OR = 55.0 [95% CI 28.3, 107.9] and OR = 3.6 [95% CI 2.6, 5.1]), respectively, and very preterm and moderately preterm delivery (OR = 3.6 [95% CI 2.0, 6.7] and OR = 2.4 [95% CI 1.7, 3.5]), respectively, but they had weaker effects by 24 months (ORs for birthweight: 3.7 [95% CI 2.3, 5.9] and 1.8 [95% CI 1.4, 2.3]; ORs for preterm: 1.8 [95% CI 1.1, 2.9] and 0.9 [95% CI 0.7, 1.3]). Results for multiple births were similar. Sociodemographic disparities in poor cognitive functioning emerged by 24 months of age, but were not mediated by gestational or birth characteristics. Further investigation of processes whereby social disadvantage adversely affects development prior to 24 months is needed.