We report on life course stress determinants of overweight in children, using data from the longitudinal follow-up of the nested case–control arm of the SAGE (study of asthma genes and the environment) birth cohort in Manitoba, Canada. Waist and hip measurements were obtained during a clinic visit at age 9–11 years. Multiple linear regression was conducted to determine the relationship between the waist-to-hip ratio and maternal smoking during pregnancy, postpartum maternal distress and stress reactivity in children (cortisol, cortisol-DHEA [dihydroepiandrostrenone] ratio quartiles) following a clinic stressor at age 8–10 years. We found waist-to-hip risk at age 9–11 years to be elevated among boys and girls whose mothers had experienced distress in the postnatal period. This association varied by gender and asthma status. In healthy girls, postpartum distress increased waist-to-hip ratio by a factor of 0.034 (P < 0.01), independent of the child's stage of puberty and adrenarche, cortisol-DHEA ratio and duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Among girls with asthma, maternal smoking during pregnancy was associated with an increased waist-to-hip ratio, if the mother also experienced distress in the postpartum period (0.072, P = 0.038). Among asthmatic boys, an association between maternal distress and waist-to-hip ratio was evident at the highest cortisol-DHEA ratios. Stress-induced changes to leptin and infant over-eating pathways were proposed to explain the postnatal maternal distress effects. Drawing on the theories of evolutionary biology, our findings underscore the significance of postnatal stress in disrupting hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis function in infants and increasing risk for child overweight.