Summary. With the rapid pace of the nutrition transition worldwide, understanding influences of child feeding practices within a context characterized by the co-existence of overweight and undernutrition in the same population has increasing importance. This qualitative study describes Brazilian mothers’ child feeding practices and their perceptions of their association with child weight status and explores the role of socioeconomic, cultural and organizational factors on these relationships. Forty-one women enrolled in the Family Health/Community Health Workers Programme were selected from rural, urban, coastal and indigenous areas in Ceara State, north-east Brazil, to participate in four focus group discussions. Content analysis identified fourteen emergent themes showing mothers’ child feeding practices in this setting were influenced by economic resources, mothers’ immediate social support networks (e.g. neighbours and family members) and participation in nutrition assistance programmes. Child malnutrition was the most common nutritional concern; nevertheless, mothers were aware of the negative health consequences of obesity but misunderstood its causes (e.g. foods filled with fat would make a person fat; others thought that birth control pills and stimulants given to children were causes of obesity); several reported their own struggles with overweight. Food assistance programmes emerged as an important influence on children’s dietary adequacy, especially among mothers describing dire economic situations. The findings have implications for targeting food assistance as well as health and nutrition education strategies in low-income families undergoing the nutrition transition in north-east Brazil.