Because infants of substance-abusing mothers (ISAM) have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome and have abnormal sleeping ventilatory patterns, we studied the effects of mild hypoxia during quiet sleep on ventilatory pattern, heart rate, and arousal in 23 healthy ISAM (mean +/- SEM: 9.0 +/- 0.49 weeks of age) and 15 healthy, similarly aged, control infants. Hypercapnic challenges were performed in six ISAM and eight control subjects. Hypoxic arousal responses were elicited by rapidly decreasing inspired oxygen tension to 80 mm Hg for 3 minutes or until arousal occurred. Failure to arouse to hypoxia occurred in the majority of infants in both groups. All infants had a fall in end-tidal carbon dioxide tension during hypoxia, suggesting that each had a hypoxic ventilatory response. However, the fall in end-tidal carbon dioxide tension was significantly less in the ISAM (mean +/- SEM: -4.0 +/- 0.3 vs -8.0 +/- 1.0 mm Hg), suggesting blunted ventilatory responses to hypoxia. Periodic breathing occurred during 9.5% of hypoxic challenges in control infants compared with 37% in ISAM (p = 0.056). Heart rates were significantly higher in the ISAM before, during, and after hypoxic challenges. Hypercapnic challenges (inspired carbon dioxide tension of 60 mm Hg for a maximum of 3 minutes) resulted in arousal in all infants; however, ISAM required a significantly longer exposure to hypercapnia before arousal (mean +/- SEM; 116 +/- 7.8 vs 79 +/- 13.9 seconds; p < 0.02). We conclude that ISAM have an impaired repertoire of protective responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia during sleep, and that this may play a role in their increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome.