Abstract Background Plasmodium falciparum malaria is a leading cause of pediatric morbidity and mortality in holoendemic transmission areas. Severe malarial anemia [SMA, hemoglobin (Hb) G and rs11575837:C > T) and their haplotypes. The prospective observational study was conducted over a 36 mos. follow-up period in a cohort of children (n = 1,515, aged 1.9–40 mos.) residing in a holoendemic P. falciparum transmission region, Siaya, Kenya. Results Poisson regression modeling, controlling for anemia-promoting covariates, revealed a significantly increased risk of malaria in carriers of the homozygous mutant allele genotype (TT) for rs11575837 after multiple test correction [Incidence rate ratio (IRR) = 1.540, 95% CI = 1.114–2.129, P = 0.009]. Increased risk of SMA was observed for rs2736191 in children who inherited the CG genotype (IRR = 1.269, 95% CI = 1.009–1.597, P = 0.041) and in the additive model (presence of 1 or 2 copies) (IRR = 1.198, 95% CI = 1.030–1.393, P = 0.019), but was not significant after multiple test correction. Modeling of the haplotypes revealed that the CC haplotype had a significant additive effect for protection against SMA (i.e., reduced risk for development of SMA) after multiple test correction (IRR = 0.823, 95% CI = 0.711–0.952, P = 0.009). Although increased susceptibility to SMA was present in carriers of the GC haplotype (IRR = 1.276, 95% CI = 1.030–1.581, P = 0.026) with an additive effect (IRR = 1.182, 95% CI = 1.018–1.372, P = 0.029), the results did not remain significant after multiple test correction. None of the NCR3 genotypes or haplotypes were associated with all-cause mortality. Conclusions Variation in NCR3 alters susceptibility to malaria and SMA during the acquisition of naturally-acquired malarial immunity. These results highlight the importance of NK cells in the innate immune response to malaria.