BACKGROUND: The introduction of paediatric palliative care and referral to specialised teams still occurs late in the illness trajectory of children with life-limiting diseases. The aim of this ongoing multipart study was to develop a screening instrument for paediatricians that would improve the timely identification of children who could benefit from a palliative care approach. METHODS: We used a qualitative study approach with semi-structured interviews (Part 1) and a focus group discussion (Part 2) to define the domains and items of the screening instrument. Seven international paediatric palliative care experts from the UK, France, USA, and Canada took part in face-to-face interviews, and eleven paediatric health professionals from the University Children's Hospital, Zurich, participated in a subsequent focus group discussion. RESULTS: This preliminary phase of development and validation of the instrument revealed five domains relevant to identifying children with life-limiting diseases, who could benefit from palliative care: 1) trajectory of disease and impact on daily activities of the child; 2) expected outcome of disease-directed treatment and burden of treatment; 3) symptom and problem burden; 4) preferences of patient, parents or healthcare professional; and 5) estimated life expectancy. Where palliative care seems to be necessary, it would be introduced in a stepwise or graduated manner. CONCLUSIONS: This study is a preliminary report of the development of an instrument to facilitate timely introduction of palliative care in the illness trajectory of a severely ill child. The instrument demonstrated early validity and was evaluated as being a valuable approach towards effective paediatric palliative care.