In spite of their precipitous encounter with the environment, newborn infants cannot readily mount T helper type 1 (TH1) cell antibacterial and antiviral responses. Instead, they show skewing toward TH2 responses, which, together with immunoregulatory functions, are thought to limit the potential for inflammatory damage, while simultaneously permitting intestinal colonization by commensals. However, these collective capabilities account for relatively few T cells. Here we demonstrate that a major T cell effector function in human newborns is interleukin-8 (CXCL8) production, which has the potential to activate antimicrobial neutrophils and γδ T cells. CXCL8 production was provoked by antigen receptor engagement of T cells that are distinct from those few cells producing TH1, TH2 and TH17 cytokines, was co-stimulated by Toll-like receptor signaling, and was readily apparent in preterm babies, particularly those experiencing neonatal infections and severe pathology. By contrast, CXCL8-producing T cells were rare in adults, and no equivalent function was evident in neonatal mice. CXCL8 production counters the widely held view that T lymphocytes in very early life are intrinsically anti-inflammatory, with implications for immune monitoring, immune interventions (including vaccination) and immunopathologies. It also emphasizes qualitative distinctions between infants' and adults' immune systems.