The chest wall of the preterm infant has visible paradoxical movement during breathing, because of its greater flexibility than those of older children and adults. We studied the dynamics of the chest wall in 10 preterm infants to describe the interaction of the chest wall volume, as partitioned by the inductance plethysmograph, and the transthoracic and abdominal pressures. There was considerable hysteresis between the chest wall volume and the transthoracic pressure, and it had linear pressure-volume behavior during airway occlusion, late inspiration, and early expiration. The slope of this pressure-volume relationship, or the instantaneous chest wall compliance, averaged 0.89 +/- 0.16 and 0.94 +/- 0.18 ml/cmH2O for the respiratory effort during airway occlusion and early expiration, respectively. The dynamic compliance was considerably greater, averaging 7.8 +/- 2.3 ml/cmH2O. This resistive pressure-volume behavior was not related to the absolute value of or the rate of development of the esophageal or abdominal pressures. This additional degree of freedom of motion of the chest wall suggests that its linkage to the diaphragm is flexible, which provides a braking force for expiration and allows free movement of the diaphragm for breathing movements before birth.