Each year there are an estimated four million neonatal deaths and at least 3.2 million stillbirths. Three-quarters of the world's neonatal deaths are counted only through five-yearly retrospective household surveys. Without these surveys we would have no data, but limitations remain particularly in detecting deaths on the first day of life. Comparable reliable neonatal cause of death data through vital registration are available for less than 5% of the world's neonatal deaths, necessitating modelled estimates for the majority of the world. Improving the quantity, quality and frequency of data for numbers and causes of neonatal deaths is essential to effectively guide the increasing investments to reduce these deaths. Advancing the data requires general investment in information systems and specific improvements of tools and methods for both household surveys and verbal autopsy, particularly the use of consistent case definitions and hierarchical attribution of cause of death. An important paradigm shift is from historical categories for cause of death (‘perinatal causes’) to programmatic categories which are consistent with the International Classification of Diseases. If neonatal deaths remain uncounted, they cannot count in policy and in programmes.