Little information is available on the energy expenditure of infants with increased work of breathing from respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). A study was carried out to determine whether surfactant replacement therapy modifies respiratory gas exchange in newborn infants with RDS and an arterial-alveolar oxygen tension ratio of less than 0.22. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, rescue trial, infants received either two 5 ml/kg doses of a synthetic surfactant, Exosurf Neonatal, or air placebo. Of 23 infants ventilated for RDS, 11 were randomly assigned to receive air and 12 to receive surfactant. Oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production, respiratory quotient, and metabolic rate were measured by computerized, closed-circuit, indirect calorimetry. Concomitantly, transcutaneous oxygen and carbon dioxide tension were continuously recorded. Oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production remained constant during the period infants received surfactant. In patients randomly assigned to surfactant, a decrease in respiratory quotient was observed after the first (p less than 0.025) but not the second dose. This decrease was possibly related to a change in substrate utilization. The improved clinical outcomes reported among infants receiving surfactant were not accompanied by changes in energy expenditure.