Epidemiologic studies have shown persistent effects of low birth weight on respiratory function and lung health, but underlying mechanisms are not understood. Our aim was to determine the effects of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), a major cause of low birth weight, on postnatal respiratory function. IUGR was induced by umbilico-placental embolization during late gestation in chronically catheterized sheep. Umbilico-placental embolization was performed between 120 d of gestation and term ( approximately 146 d) during which fetuses were hypoxemic and hypoglycemic relative to controls. Umbilico-placental embolization led to a 48% reduction in birth weight compared with controls, and throughout the postnatal study period IUGR lambs (n = 8) remained lighter than controls (n = 8). Respiratory function was repeatedly studied in lambs for 8 wk after birth; during this period, IUGR lambs were mildly hypoxemic and tended to be hypercapnic compared with controls. In IUGR lambs, relative to controls, O(2) consumption (mL/min/kg) and minute ventilation (mL/kg) were increased and pulmonary diffusing capacity (adjusted for functional residual capacity) was decreased. Functional residual capacity, measured by helium dilution, and total lung capacity (measured at 30 cm H(2)O) were smaller in IUGR lambs than in controls. When adjusted for functional residual capacity, static lung compliance was reduced and chest wall compliance was increased in IUGR lambs. At 8 wk, pulmonary DNA and protein concentrations were decreased in IUGR lambs relative to controls. We conclude that restriction of fetal growth by placental insufficiency induces alterations in the lungs and chest wall that result in persistent impairments in respiratory function during early postnatal life.