In a case-control study to understand the risk factors for development of life-threatening dehydration, a total of 379 children comprising 243 cases (moderate or severe dehydration) and 136 controls (non or mild dehydration) up to 2 years of age suffering from acute watery diarrhoea were studied. By univariate analysis, the presence of vibrios in stool, withdrawal of breast feeding during diarrhoea, not giving fluids, including oral rehydration solution (ORS), during diarrhoea, frequent purging ( > 8/day), vomiting ( > 2/day) and undernutrition were identified as risk factors. However, by multivariate analysis after controlling for confounders, withdrawal of breast feeding during diarrhoea (odds ratio (OR) = 6.8, p < 0.00001) and not giving ORS during diarrhoea (OR = 2.1, p < 0.006) were identified as significant risk factors. The confounding variables which also contributed significantly to increasing the risk were age ( < or = 12 months; OR = 2.7, p = 0.001), frequent purging ( > 8/day; OR = 4.1, p < 0.00001), vomiting ( > 2/day; OR = 2.4, p = 0.001) and severe undernutrition (%median < or = 60 weight-for-age of Indian Academy of Paediatrics classification; OR = 3.1, p = 0.001). We feel that these findings will be useful for Global and National Diarrhoeal Diseases Control Programmes for formulating intervention strategies for preventing death due to diarrhoeal dehydration.