In 18 low birth weight infants, small for gestational age, with different degrees of intrauterine growth retardation the activities of pancreatic lipase and trypsin and the concentrations of bile acids were measured in preprandially aspirated duodenal juice. The results were compared to those of 24 low birth weight infants, appropriate for gestational age, with comparable birth weights and postnatal ages. The activities of both measured pancreatic enzymes were negatively correlated with the degree of intrauterine growth retardation, expressed as the difference between the individual birth weight and the weight of the 10th percentile of the intrauterine growth curve (lipase: r = -0.697, p less than 0.001; trypsin: r = -0.739, p less than 0.001). The activity of trypsin in the small for gestational age infants was within the range of that found in the infants appropriate for gestational age. However, the lipase activity was decreased in infants who presented with growth retardation of greater than 400 g/kg birthweight. The concentrations of bile acids were similar in both groups (4.60 +/- 2.51 and 4.55 +/- 2.26 mmol/L, respectively) and sufficient for activating the bile salt stimulated lipase in human milk. The data suggest that in intrauterine growth retarded infants the lipase activity in the duodenal juice can be a limiting factor for optimal fat digestion. This should be considered in the nutritional management of such infants.