In the past three decades, Brazil has undergone rapid changes in major social determinants of health and in the organisation of health services. In this report, we examine how these changes have affected indicators of maternal health, child health, and child nutrition. We use data from vital statistics, population censuses, demographic and health surveys, and published reports. In the past three decades, infant mortality rates have reduced substantially, decreasing by 5·5% a year in the 1980s and 1990s, and by 4·4% a year since 2000 to reach 20 deaths per 1000 livebirths in 2008. Neonatal deaths account for 68% of infant deaths. Stunting prevalence among children younger than 5 years decreased from 37% in 1974–75 to 7% in 2006–07. Regional differences in stunting and child mortality also decreased. Access to most maternal-health and child-health interventions increased sharply to almost universal coverage, and regional and socioeconomic inequalities in access to such interventions were notably reduced. The median duration of breastfeeding increased from 2·5 months in the 1970s to 14 months by 2006–07. Official statistics show stable maternal mortality ratios during the past 10 years, but modelled data indicate a yearly decrease of 4%, a trend which might not have been noticeable in official reports because of improvements in death registration and the increased number of investigations into deaths of women of reproductive age. The reasons behind Brazil's progress include: socioeconomic and demographic changes (economic growth, reduction in income disparities between the poorest and wealthiest populations, urbanisation, improved education of women, and decreased fertility rates), interventions outside the health sector (a conditional cash transfer programme and improvements in water and sanitation), vertical health programmes in the 1980s (promotion of breastfeeding, oral rehydration, and immunisations), creation of a tax-funded national health service in 1988 (coverage of which expanded to reach the poorest areas of the country through the Family Health Program in the mid-1990s); and implementation of many national and state-wide programmes to improve child health and child nutrition and, to a lesser extent, to promote women's health. Nevertheless, substantial challenges remain, including overmedicalisation of childbirth (nearly 50% of babies are delivered by caesarean section), maternal deaths caused by illegal abortions, and a high frequency of preterm deliveries.