Hyperpnoeic episodic breathing (HEB), a cyclic waxing and waning of breathing, has been widely reported in pre-term neonates, patients with Joubert syndrome and adults (Cheyne-Stokes respiration) with congestive heart failure and brainstem infarction. We now provide a developmental mouse model of neonatal HEB. We used retinoic acid (RA) (0.5-10 mg/kg of maternal weight) to alter embryonic development of the respiratory neuronal network at the onset of hindbrain segmentation (7.5 days post-coitum). HEB was observed in vivo after RA treatment during post-natal days 1-7 but not in control animals. HEB persisted after reduction of the chemoafferent input by hypocapnic hyperoxia (100% O(2)). A large increase and decrease of the rhythm resembling an HEB episode was induced in vitro by stimulating the parafacial respiratory oscillator in treated but not in control neonates. Post-natal localization of the superior cerebellar peduncle and adjacent dorsal tegmentum was found to be abnormal in the pons of RA-treated juvenile mice. Thus, early developmental specifications in the rostral hindbrain are required for the development of neurones that stabilize the function of the respiratory rhythm generator, thereby preventing HEB during post-natal maturation.