Negative density dependence resulting from intraspecific competition can regulate plant populations by limiting demographic rates (survival, growth, fecundity). However, the strength of intraspecific competition can vary within and among populations due to spatial or temporal environmental heterogeneity, or genetic differences. Quantification of variation under a relatively constant environment is needed to assess the inherent potential for density dependence to vary. This knowledge will help adjust data collection effort required for parameterisation of density dependence. Our review of published plant demographic studies revealed that only half of the studies included the whole life-cycle in the analysis of density dependence. Approximately half of the studies manipulated density, while the rest examined density dependence from observed densities in the field. Regardless of the design used, density dependence was estimated from a small number of replicates. To investigate inherent variation in density dependence during the life-cycle, and the effect of low replication on density dependence estimates, we combined an experimental approach with simulations for an invasive herb Senecio madagascariensis. We found significant negative density dependence for five out of six examined demographic rates in a constant environment, with the strength of density dependence increasing during the life-cycle. An exception was plant growth, in which the direction of density dependence varied from positive to negative depending on the life stage. Simulations showed substantial deviation for density dependence parameterised from a small number of replicates even when environmental variation was minimal. This suggests that data collection procedures currently used to assess the effect of density on plant demographic rates may produce inaccurate estimates, increasing uncertainty in demographic models. Due to variation in the direction and strength of density dependence during the life-cycle, multiple life stages with multiple replicated density levels are required to parameterise density dependence for demographic rates.