Growth faltering (low length-for-age or weight-for length) in the first 1000 days — from conception to two years of age — influences both short and long-term health and survival. Evidence for interventions to prevent growth faltering such as nutritional supplementation during pregnancy and the postnatal period has increasingly accumulated, but programmatic action has been insufficient to eliminate the high burden of stunting and wasting in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, there is need to better understand age-windows and population subgroups in which to focus future preventive efforts. Here, we show using a population intervention effects analysis of 33 longitudinal cohorts (83,671 children) and 30 separate exposures that improving maternal anthropometry and child condition at birth, in particular child length-at-birth, accounted for population increases by age 24 months in length-for-age Z of 0.04 to 0.40 and weight-for-length Z by 0.02 to 0.15. Boys had consistently higher risk of all forms of growth faltering than girls, and early growth faltering predisposed children to subsequent and persistent growth faltering. Children with multiple growth deficits had higher mortality rates from birth to two years than those without deficits (hazard ratios 1.9 to 8.7). The importance of prenatal causes, and severe consequences for children who experienced early growth faltering, support a focus on pre-conception and pregnancy as key opportunities for new preventive interventions.