The effects of the transition from fetal to postnatal circulation on left ventricular geometry, wall motion, and echocardiographic measurements of function in the human preterm infant are largely unknown. To determine whether abnormalities in left ventricular geometry are present in the normal preterm infant after birth and, if so, for how long, and to examine possible contributing factors and their effect on the measurement of cardiac performance, we obtained serial echocardiograms of 14 healthy preterm infants (gestational age, 33 +/- 2 weeks; birth weight, 1940 +/- 470 gm) at 9.5 +/- 3.5 days of age (time 1) and again at 51 +/- 16 days (time 2). Left ventricular shape and wall motion were measured and estimates of wall stress and mass were made. Performance was assessed by standard M-mode shortening fraction and by transverse two-dimensional area shortening. At time 1 septal flattening caused distortion of left ventricular shape. As the patients grew older, septal flattening resolved and the left ventricle tended to assume a circular cross-sectional shape. Wall-motion analysis demonstrated poor motion of the midseptum and anterior free wall at time 1, which improved at time 2 (p = 0.06). Left ventricular mass increased from 24 +/- 5 to 41 +/- 7 gm/m2 (p = 0.0001) and wall stress decreased from 49 +/- 21 to 38 +/- 13 gm/cm2 (p = 0.005) between time 1 and time 2. Shortening fraction was lower at time 1 than at time 2 (18% +/- 7% vs 28% +/- 8%; p = 0.001; normal limit = 28% to 45%); however, there was no significant difference in area shortening between time 1 and time 2 (49% +/- 10% vs 53% +/- 8%; normal limit = 45% to 65%). We conclude that the preterm newborn infant has distorted left ventricular shape and abnormal wall motion, which alter measurements of shortening fraction and persist for the first weeks of life. Area shortening may be necessary to assess left ventricular performance during the first weeks of life in the premature infant.