Linear growth failure is the most common form of undernutrition globally. With an estimated 165 million children below 5 years of age affected, stunting has been identified as a major public health priority, and there are ambitious targets to reduce the prevalence of stunting by 40% between 2010 and 2025. We view this condition as a ‘stunting syndrome’ in which multiple pathological changes marked by linear growth retardation in early life are associated with increased morbidity and mortality, reduced physical, neurodevelopmental and economic capacity and an elevated risk of metabolic disease into adulthood. Stunting is a cyclical process because women who were themselves stunted in childhood tend to have stunted offspring, creating an intergenerational cycle of poverty and reduced human capital that is difficult to break. In this review, the mechanisms underlying linear growth failure at different ages are described, the short-, medium- and long-term consequences of stunting are discussed, and the evidence for windows of opportunity during the life cycle to target interventions at the stunting syndrome are evaluated.