This article explores the diplomatic contestations over children’s rights in connection to the International Year of the Child (iyc) of 1979. At the time, the Year was celebrated as an outstanding success, an event which helped to heighten social and political awareness of the status of children in both developing and industrialized countries, and which brought to light a plethora of new global issues, including street children, children with disabilities and children in armed conflict. Today, the iyc is frequently reduced to a plotting point in histories charting the rise of an international discourse of children’s rights, a discourse that is intimately linked to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. This article shows how the concept of children’s rights was of peripheral importance to the overarching purposes of the iyc, which instead revolved around a notion of child welfare as integral to wider projects of social and economic development, either in the form of economic sovereignty or basic needs. The article then revisits the 1978–1979 UN debates on a human rights treaty for children, showing how this project initially garnered minimal support among states, international agencies and non-state actors. The article thus takes issue with teleological accounts that see the iyc primarily as a first step toward the subsequent breakthrough of children’s human rights. It also showcases how historical case studies of UN observances can be fruitful for scholars interested in the clashes and amalgamations of competing concepts and projects at an international level.