OBJECTIVE: To describe trends in the mortality of children aged 12-60 months and to perform spatial data analysis of its distribution at the inner city district level in S o Paulo from 1980 to 1998. METHODS: Official mortality data were analysed in relation to the underlying causes of death. The population of children aged 12-60 months, disaggregated by sex and age, was estimated for each year. Educational levels, income, employment status, and other socioeconomic indices were also assessed. Statistical Package for Social Sciences software was used for the statistical processing of time series. The Cochrane-Orcutt procedure of generalized least squares regression analysis was used to estimate the regression parameters with control of first-order autocorrelation. Spatial data analysis employed the discrimination of death rates and socioeconomic indices at the inner city district level. For classifying area-level death rates the method of K-means cluster analysis was used. Spatial correlation between variables was analysed by the simultaneous autoregressive regression method. FINDINGS: There was a steady decline in death rates during the 1980s at an average rate of 3.08% per year, followed by a levelling off. Infectious diseases remained the major cause of mortality, accounting for 43.1% of deaths during the last three years of the study. Injuries accounted for 16.5% of deaths. Mortality rates at the area level clearly demonstrated inequity in the city's health profile: there was an increasing difference between the rich and the underprivileged social strata in this respect. CONCLUSION: The overall mortality rate among children aged 12-60 months dropped by almost 30% during the study period. Most of the decline happened during the 1980s. Many people still live in a state of deprivation in underserved areas. Time-series and spatial data analysis provided indications of potential value in the planning of social policies promoting well-being, through the identification of factors affecting child survival and the regions with the worst health profiles, to which programmes and resources should be preferentially directed.