Experimentally modified breathing pattern in human subjects, by varying the inspired gas mixture or administering different neuromodulators, has been studied extensively in the past, yet unmodified breathing has not. Moreover, most data refer to infants during sleep and adults during wakefulness. We studied the baseline breathing pattern of preterm infants [n = 10; GA 30 (27-34) wk (median, range)]; term infants [n = 10; GA 40 (39-41) wk)], and adult subjects [n = 10; age 31 (17-48) y)] during quiet sleep. A flow-through system was used to measure ventilation. We found: (i) instantaneous ventilation was 0.273+/-0.006, 0.200+/-0.003, and 0.135+/-0.002 L x min(-1) x kg(-1) in preterm, term infants, and adult subjects; the coefficients of variation were 39%, 25%, and 14% (p < 0.01). The greater coefficient of variation in neonates compared to adults related to increased variability in Vt (39% and 25% in preterm and term infants vs 14% in adults; p < 0.01) and f (39% and 22% vs 9%; p < 0.01). The major determinant of frequency in preterm infants was Te (81% variability), Ti varying less (25% variability); (ii) V(T)/Ti decreased and Ti/Ttot increased with age; (iii) the higher breath-to-breath variability in preterm infants was associated with larger changes in alveolar PCO2 and a larger variability in O2 saturation than later in life.