The purpose of this study was to measure serum T4, free T4, TSH, T3, rT3, T4 sulfate, and thyroxine binding globulin at four time points within the first 24 h of life (cord and 1, 7, and 24 h) in infants between 24 and 34 wk gestation. The infants were subdivided into gestational age groups: 24-27 wk (n = 22); 28-30 wk (n = 26); and 31-34 wk (n = 24). The TSH surge in the first hour of postnatal life was markedly attenuated in infants of 24-27 wk gestation [8 compared with 20 (28-30 wk) and 23 mU/liter (31-34 wk)]. T4 levels in the most immature group declined over the first 24 h, whereas levels increased in the more mature groups [mean cord and 24-h levels: 65 and 59 (NS) vs. 70 and 84 (P < 0.002) vs. 98 and 125 (NS) nmol/liter]. Free T4 and T3 showed only small, transient increases in the most immature group and progressively larger and sustained increases in the other gestational groups. rT3 and T4 sulfate levels in cord serum were higher in the most immature infants, and in all groups levels decreased initially and then variably increased. The features of a severely attenuated or failed hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid response to delivery critically define this 24- to 27-wk group as distinct from more mature preterm infants.