Sustainable Development Goal 2.2.2, to end malnutrition by 2030, measures progress through elimination of child wasting, defined as weight-for-length more than 2 standard deviations below international standards. Prevailing methods to measure wasting rely on cross-sectional surveys that cannot measure onset, recovery, and persistence — key features of wasting epidemiology that could inform preventive interventions and disease burden estimates. Here, we show through an analysis of 21 longitudinal cohorts that wasting is a highly dynamic process of onset and recovery, and incidence peaks between birth and 3 months — far earlier than peak prevalence at 12-15 months. By age 24 months 29.2% of children had experienced at least one wasting episode, more than 5-fold higher than point prevalence (5.6%), demonstrating that wasting incidence is far higher than cross-sectional surveys suggest. Children wasted before 6 months were more likely to experience concurrent wasting and stunting (low height-for-age) later, increasing their risk of mortality. In diverse populations with seasonal rainfall, population average weight-for-length varied substantially (>0.5 z in some cohorts), with the lowest mean Z-scores during the rainiest months, creating potential for seasonally targeted interventions. Our results motivate a new focus on extending preventive interventions for wasting to pregnant and lactating mothers, and for preventive and therapeutic interventions to include children below age 6 months in addition to current targets of ages 6-59 months.