Juvenile tropical trees grow from the shaded understorey to the high-light conditions of the canopy, but actual height growth trajectories towards the canopy remain unknown. Although height growth is the determining factor for reaching the canopy, investment in diameter growth is needed to sustain mechanical stability. We quantified variation in long-term juvenile tree growth patterns in diameter and height within three Bolivian moist forest species, and evaluated whether diameter growth and height growth were related. We reconstructed lifetime growth in diameter and height for 21-27 juvenile trees per species by measuring tree rings at various heights in the stem. Growth in diameter and height strongly varied among and within tree species. The light-demanding species Cedrelinga cateniformis needed just 6-19 y to reach a height of 3 m, while the more shade-tolerant species Clarisia racemosa and Peltogyne cf. heterophylla needed 8-39 y and 13-43 y, respectively. Diameter growth and height growth were not, or just weakly, positively related, and trees of the same height displayed a wide range in stem diameter. Our results indicate that trees of all three species shifted investment in diameter growth and height growth over time, most likely in response to variation in light levels.