In 2004–05, Niger suffered a food crisis during which global attention focused on high levels of acute malnutrition among children. In response, decentralised emergency nutrition programmes were introduced into much of southern Niger. Child malnutrition, however, is a chronic problem and its links with food production and household food security are complex. This qualitative, anthropological study investigates pathways by which children are rendered vulnerable in the context of a nutritional ‘emergency’. It focuses on household-level decisions that determine resource allocation and childcare practices in order to explain why practices apparently detrimental to children's health persist. Risk aversion, the need to maintain self-identity and status, and constrained decision making result in a failure to invest extra necessary resources ingrowth-faltering children. Understanding and responding to the social context of child malnutrition will help humanitarian workers to integrate their efforts more effectively with longer-term development programmes aimed at improving livelihood security.