Introduction Children admitted to hospitals in resource-poor settings remain at risk of both inpatient and post-discharge mortality. While known risk factors such as young age and nutritional status can identify children at risk, they do not provide clear mechanistic targets for intervention. The Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition (CHAIN) cohort study aims to characterise the biomedical and social risk factors for mortality in acutely ill children in hospitals and after discharge to identify targeted interventions to reduce mortality. Methods and analysis The CHAIN network is currently undertaking a multi-site, prospective, observational cohort study, enrolling children aged 1 week to 2 years at admission to hospitals at nine sites located in four African and two South Asian countries. The CHAIN Network supports the sites to provide care according to national and international guidelines. Enrolment is stratified by anthropometric status and children are followed throughout hospitalisation and for 6 months after discharge. Detailed clinical, demographic, anthropometric, laboratory and social exposures are assessed. Scheduled visits are conducted at 45, 90 and 180 days after discharge. Blood, stool and rectal swabs are collected at enrolment, hospital discharge and follow-up. The primary outcome is inpatient or post-discharge death. Secondary outcomes include readmission to hospital and nutritional status after discharge. Cohort analysis will identify modifiable risks, children with distinct phenotypes, relationships between factors and mechanisms underlying poor outcomes that may be targets for intervention. A nested case-control study examining infectious, immunological, metabolic, nutritional and other biological factors will be undertaken. Ethics and dissemination This study protocol was reviewed and approved primarily by the Oxford Tropical Research Ethics Committee, and the institutional review boards of all partner sites. The study is being externally monitored. Results will be published in open access peer-reviewed scientific journals and presented to academic and policy stakeholders.