Tolerance to opioid-induced sedation has been reported in neonates sedated with fentanyl by continuous infusion while undergoing extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. We undertook a prospective analysis of eight newborn infants sedated with fentanyl during extracorporeal membrane oxygenation therapy for respiratory failure. We recorded daily mean fentanyl infusion rate, measured serial plasma fentanyl concentrations, and documented the occurrence of spontaneous motor activity or respiratory effort. Mean fentanyl infusion rate increased steadily during the period of infusion from a mean of 9.2 +/- 1.9 (SEM) micrograms/kg per hour on day 1 to a mean of 21.9 +/- 4.5 micrograms/kg per hour by day 6. Mean plasma fentanyl concentrations increased steadily during the period of fentanyl infusion from 3.1 +/- 1.1 (SEM) ng/ml on day 1 to 13.9 +/- 3.2 ng/ml on day 6. All infants exhibited movement in response to gentle tactile stimulation throughout the period of infusion, and seven of eight infants manifested spontaneous movement of the extremities and eye opening. Our results indicate that when fentanyl is used for sedation in neonates, the plasma concentrations required for satisfactory sedation steadily escalate, possibly indicating the rapid development of tolerance to the sedating effects of fentanyl.