Renal function differs in term infants from that in adults, with lower glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and reduced proximal tubular reabsorption of sodium (Na) and water: nevertheless, it is adequate for their needs. This is not true of very preterm infants in whom hyponatraemia is common. Animal studies have shown that Na+, K(+)-ATPase and the Na+/K+ exchanger are poorly expressed at birth with rapid postnatal rises. Cell receptors for hormones that influence tubular Na transport are less numerous in the premature infant than later in life: intracellular second messenger systems may also be immature. The low GFR is due to vasoconstriction and may be necessary to prevent water and electrolyte wasting due to tubular overload. The hyponatraemia of prematurity could, in principle, be due either to Na loss or water excess and can be prevented either by giving additional Na or by restricting water intake. Na supplementation causes relative volume expansion (VE), water restriction volume contraction (VC); this is demonstrated by the effect of the two approaches on weight gain and on the levels of vasoactive hormones in the blood. We argue that moderate VE is more physiological than VC, both in attempting to simulate intrauterine conditions and in consideration of the infant's nutritional needs. The much less common complication of hypernatraemia is usually due to abnormal water loss and should be prevented by increasing water intake appropriately. The above applies to well, preterm babies: sick preterm infants are much more variable in their Na and water requirements than well infants of comparable gestation and weight and each needs an individually tailored regimen based on frequent clinical assessment and laboratory measurement.