Background To examine changes in under-5 mortality, coverage of child survival interventions and nutritional status of children in Ethiopia between 2000 and 2011. Using the Lives Saved Tool, the impact of changes in coverage of child survival interventions on under-5 lives saved was estimated. Methods Estimates of child mortality were generated using three Ethiopia Demographic and Health Surveys undertaken between 2000 and 2011. Coverage indicators for high impact child health interventions were calculated and the Lives Saved Tool (LiST) was used to estimate child lives saved in 2011. Results The mortality rate in children younger than 5 years decreased rapidly from 218 child deaths per 1000 live births (95% confidence interval 183 to 252) in the period 1987-1991 to 88 child deaths per 1000 live births in the period 2007-2011 (78 to 98). The prevalence of moderate or severe stunting in children aged 6-35 months also declined significantly. Improvements in the coverage of interventions relevant to child survival in rural areas of Ethiopia between 2000 and 2011 were found for tetanus toxoid, DPT3 and measles vaccination, oral rehydration solution (ORS) and care-seeking for suspected pneumonia. The LiST analysis estimates that there were 60 700 child deaths averted in 2011, primarily attributable to decreases in wasting rates (18%), stunting rates (13%) and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions (13%). Conclusions Improvements in the nutritional status of children and increases in coverage of high impact interventions most notably WASH and ORS have contributed to the decline in under-5 mortality in Ethiopia. These proximal determinants however do not fully explain the mortality reduction which is plausibly also due to the synergistic effect of major child health and nutrition policies and delivery strategies.