Abstract There is widespread concern that the number of children living in ?child-headed households? is rapidly increasing as a result of AIDS-related adult mortality in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Based on analyses of data from several representative national surveys over the period 2000?2007, this paper examines the extent to which this is the case in South Africa. It explores trends in the number of children living in child-only households and characterises these children relative to children living in households with adults (mixed-generation households). The findings indicate that the proportion of child-only households is relatively small (0.47% in 2006) and does not appear to be increasing. In addition, the vast majority (92.1%) of children resident in child-only households have a living parent. The findings raise critical questions about the circumstances leading to the formation of child-only households and highlight that they cannot for the main part be ascribed to HIV orphaning. Nonetheless, the number of children living in this household form is not insignificant, and their circumstances, when compared with children in mixed-generation households, indicate a range of challenges, including greater economic vulnerability and inadequate service access. We argue that a solitary focus on the HIV epidemic and its related orphaning as the cause of child-only households masks other important issues for consideration in addressing their needs, and risks the development of inappropriate policies, programmes and interventions.