The diagnosis of visceral leishmaniasis (VL) generally requires the use of invasive tests for the collection of infected tissue (aspirates of bone marrow, spleen, liver or lymph nodes). This difficulty has led to the search for safer and less painful techniques to confirm the occurrence of the disease in children. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a method that is advantageous in that it allows the use of peripheral blood samples for diagnosis. This paper reports the utilisation of PCR on peripheral blood samples to diagnose VL in 45 children in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. This technique is compared with methods carried out using tissue collected by invasive procedures, including direct microscopy, culture and detection of Leishmania DNA by PCR in bone marrow aspirates. The results show that PCR of peripheral blood provides great sensitivity (95.6%) that is similar to that from the PCR of bone marrow aspirates (91.1%) and higher than that achieved with microscopy (80%) or culture (26.7%) methods. PCR of peripheral blood proved to be a suitable tool for the diagnosis of VL in children because it is highly sensitive and safe, with tissue collection being less invasive than in traditional tests.