Several studies report socioeconomic inequalities in child health and consequences of early disease. However, not much is known about inequalities in health capital accumulation in the womb in response to fetal health shocks, which is essential for finding the earliest sensitive periods for interventions to reduce inequalities. We identify inequalities in birth weight accumulation as a result of fetal health shocks from the occurrence of one of the most common birth defects, oral clefts, within the first 9 weeks of pregnancy, using quantile regression and two datasets from South America and the USA. Infants born at lower birth weight quantiles are significantly more adversely affected by the health shock compared with those born at higher birth weight quantiles, with overall comparable results between the South American and US samples. These results suggest that fetal health shocks increase child health disparities by widening the spread of the birth weight distribution and that health inequalities begin in the womb, requiring interventions before pregnancy. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.