We have investigated the influence of gestational age on the inhibition of fetal lung liquid secretion by arginine vasopressin (AVP). In eight fetal sheep, lung liquid secretion rates were measured before and during infusion of AVP (300 mu.kg-1.h-1) at gestational ages between 110 and 148 days. During infusions, the concentration of AVP in fetal plasma increased from less than 8.7 +/- 0.2 pg/ml to 848.7 +/- 75.1 pg/ml. Fetal plasma epinephrine concentrations were not altered during AVP infusion. Infusions of AVP had no effect on fetal lung secretion before 135 days of gestation; they caused a 40.8% inhibition between 136 and 140 days, and at ages greater than 140 days induced an inhibition of 78.4%. In two ewes during labor, AVP infusion caused either a complete inhibition of secretion or reabsorption of lung liquid. The inhibitory effect of AVP increased in an exponential-like fashion with increasing gestational age and appeared to parallel the preparturient rise in fetal plasma cortisol concentrations. Our results indicate that AVP may be involved in the clearance of lung liquid at term and that AVP is unlikely to mediate the inhibitory effect of fetal asphyxia on lung liquid secretion, at least until after 135 days of gestation.