Twenty-one extremely-low-birth-weight (ELBW) and premature infants (<29 weeks' gestation and/or <1,000 g) underwent emergency laparotomy for acute intra-abdominal pathology (necrotising enterocolitis [NEC] 16, other bowel pathology 5) during the 4-year period from 1990 to 1993; 11 died. The neurodevelopmental outcome of the 10 survivors was assessed and compared with 20 living, otherwise normal controls matched for gestational age, birth weight, and year of birth to asses the effect of the abdominal event on quality of survival. Those who survived after laparotomy had a worse neurodevelopmental outcome than controls (P < 0.05). During this period, we also compared 24 infants in the ELBW category who developed NEC but did not require a laparotomy with the 16 ELBW infants with NEC who required a laparotomy. Those who required a laparotomy had worse disease and had significantly worse neurodevelopmental outcomes (P < 0.01). ELBW and premature infants who have acute intra-abdominal pathology requiring a laparotomy are thus at increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems and poor growth. Close long-term follow-up is important, and the families of such infants should be made aware before surgery of the increased risk the abdominal event has on their babies' developmental outcome if they survive.