The natural history of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) has been studied prospectively in 572 infants < or = 1,700 g birthweight using a protocol designed specifically to investigate the subtle features of this condition. Acute ROP developed in 50.9%. All ROP stages 1 and 2 underwent complete resolution and of the 27 (4.7%) infants with stage 3/4 disease, cicatricial sequelae developed in six. Incidence and severity increased with decreasing birthweight and gestational age. Onset was not confined to the temporal retina but exhibited a predilection to start first in the nasal retina of the most immature neonate. The vertical retinal regions were relatively spared. Retinal arteriolar tortuosity developed around three months postnatally and was related to ROP severity but not its presence. The age at onset and rate of progression of retinopathy were largely determined by the stage of development but were also modified by systemic and local factors. The relevance of these findings to ROP screening is discussed.