Given the challenges in accurately identifying unexposed controls in case–control studies of diarrhoea, we examined diarrhoea incidence, subclinical enteric infections and growth stunting within a reference population in the Global Enteric Multicenter Study, Kenya site. Within ‘control’ children (0–59 months old without diarrhoea in the 7 days before enrolment, n = 2384), we examined surveys at enrolment and 60-day follow-up, stool at enrolment and a 14-day post-enrolment memory aid for diarrhoea incidence. At enrolment, 19% of controls had ⩾1 enteric pathogen associated with moderate-to-severe diarrhoea (‘MSD pathogens’) in stool; following enrolment, many reported diarrhoea (27% in 7 days, 39% in 14 days). Controls with and without reported diarrhoea had similar carriage of MSD pathogens at enrolment; however, controls reporting diarrhoea were more likely to report visiting a health facility for diarrhoea (27% vs. 7%) or fever (23% vs. 16%) at follow-up than controls without diarrhoea. Odds of stunting differed by both MSD and ‘any’ (including non-MSD pathogens) enteric pathogen carriage, but not diarrhoea, suggesting control classification may warrant modification when assessing long-term outcomes. High diarrhoea incidence following enrolment and prevalent carriage of enteric pathogens have implications for sequelae associated with subclinical enteric infections and for design and interpretation of case–control studies examining diarrhoea.