The aim of this analysis was to construct cross-sectional gestational age specific percentile curves for birthweight, length, head and mid-arm circumference for Malawian babies, and to compare these percentiles with reference values for babies born to women with normal pregnancies, from a developed country. A cross-sectional study which enrolled pregnant women attending two study hospitals between March 1993 and July 1994 was undertaken. Data on maternal socio-economic status, newborn anthropometry, previous obstetric history and current pregnancy were collected. Smoothed percentile values were derived using the LMS method. Malawian reference percentiles were constructed for fetal growth from 35 weeks' gestation for singleton births. Mean birthweight, length and head circumference were lower at all gestational ages for Malawian compared with Swedish newborns. Fetal growth per completed gestational week was higher by 60 g in weight, 0.5 cm in length and 0.2 cm in head circumference in Swedish compared with Malawian babies. Growth restriction was present from 35 to 41 weeks' gestation. The pattern for the 10th percentile suggested that this was occurring from well before 35 weeks' gestation in a proportion of babies. © 2005 Taylor & Francis.