It has been suggested that there are several distinct phenotypes of childhood asthma or childhood wheezing. Here, we review the research relating to these phenotypes, with a focus on the methods used to define and validate them. Childhood wheezing disorders manifest themselves in a range of observable (phenotypic) features such as lung function, bronchial responsiveness, atopy and a highly variable time course (prognosis). The underlying causes are not sufficiently understood to define disease entities based on aetiology. Nevertheless, there is a need for a classification that would (i) facilitate research into aetiology and pathophysiology, (ii) allow targeted treatment and preventive measures and (iii) improve the prediction of long-term outcome. Classical attempts to define phenotypes have been one-dimensional, relying on few or single features such as triggers (exclusive viral wheeze vs. multiple trigger wheeze) or time course (early transient wheeze, persistent and late onset wheeze). These definitions are simple but essentially subjective. Recently, a multi-dimensional approach has been adopted. This approach is based on a wide range of features and relies on multivariate methods such as cluster or latent class analysis. Phenotypes identified in this manner are more complex but arguably more objective. Although phenotypes have an undisputed standing in current research on childhood asthma and wheezing, there is confusion about the meaning of the term 'phenotype' causing much circular debate. If phenotypes are meant to represent 'real' underlying disease entities rather than superficial features, there is a need for validation and harmonization of definitions. The multi-dimensional approach allows validation by replication across different populations and may contribute to a more reliable classification of childhood wheezing disorders and to improved precision of research relying on phenotype recognition, particularly in genetics. Ultimately, the underlying pathophysiology and aetiology will need to be understood to properly characterize the diseases causing recurrent wheeze in children.