OBJECTIVE To examine determinants of moderate and severe obesity in children at 5 years of age. METHODOLOGY A prospective cohort of mothers were enrolled at first antenatal visit, and interviewed shortly after delivery, at 6 months and 5 years. Detailed health, psychological and social questionnaires were completed at each phase by mothers, and child health questionnaires at 6 months and 5 years. At 5 years 4062 children were assessed physically, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test administered and mothers completed a modified Child Behaviour Checklist. Moderate obesity was defined as BMI between 85th and 94th percentiles inclusively, and severe obesity as a BMI greater than the 94th percentile. RESULTS Independent predictors of severe obesity at 5 years were birthweight, female gender, maternal BMI and paternal BMI. Moderate obesity at 5 years was predicted by birthweight, paternal BMI and sleeplessness at 6 months, while small for gestational age (SGA) status and feeding problems at 6 months were protective factors for moderate obesity. Obesity was not associated with problems of language comprehension or behaviour. CONCLUSIONS Findings of this study suggest that biological rather than psychosocial factors are the major determinants of obesity at 5 years.