The relation of breast feeding and other factors to the incidence of respiratory syncytial virus-associated lower respiratory tract illness (RSV-LRI) in the first year of life is examined. The study population is 1,179 healthy infants enrolled at birth between May 1980 and January 1984 into the Tucson Children's Respiratory Study, Tucson, Arizona. Each subject's data were assessed at each month of age during the first year of life, during those months when respiratory syncytial virus was isolated. A number of significant relations were observed, particularly between 1 and 3 months of age. At this age, the risk of having a RSV-LRI increased in association with less than 1-month or no breast feeding, with being male, and with increasing numbers of others sharing the child's bedroom. In multivariate analysis, only sex and the number of others sharing the room remained as significant direct effects. However, a significant interaction demonstrated that breast feeding has a protective role in relation to RSV-LRIs for those infants of mothers with a lower education level. The risk of having a RSV-LRI increases with combinations of risk factors. Being in day care was a significant risk factor in the 7- to 9-month age range. The RSV-LRI rate also varies by birth month. A separate case-control study assessed relations of RSV-LRIs with cord serum RSV antibody. Those with lower cord serum RSV antibody, who also have minimal breast feeding, were found to be especially at risk for RSV-LRIs in the first 5 months of life.