We hypothesized that infants recovering from severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia have airway constriction that is, at least in part, related to borderline hypoxia. If this hypothesis were correct, pulmonary resistance should decrease with the administration of oxygen. To test this hypothesis, we studied 10 infants recovering from severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia (study weight 2490 +/- 275 gm; birth weight 1010 +/- 89 gm; postnatal age 73 +/- 7 days; postconceptional age 38.5 +/- 1.6 weeks) and 10 matched control infants (study weight 2430 +/- 179 gm; birth weight 2320 +/- 195 gm; postnatal age 25 +/- 4 days; postconceptional age 37.5 +/- 0.8 weeks). Resistance and compliance were measured by means of a mask with a flowmeter and an esophageal balloon (with the PEDS computer program). Measurements in both groups were made in quiet sleep, without sedation, during the inhalation of room air and during the fifth minute of oxygen inhalation. We found that (1) total pulmonary resistance, significantly higher in infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia than in control infants, decreased from 206.1 +/- 47 cm H2O.L-1.sec-1 during inhalation of room air to 106.5 +/- 20.9 during inhalation of 100% oxygen (p less than 0.05) and (2) pulmonary dynamic compliance, lower in infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia than in control infants, increased significantly with the administration of 100% oxygen. The results suggest that infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia have airway constriction and that this is alleviated by inhalation of oxygen.