The well-known increased risk of the respiratory distress syndrome in a twin born second as compared with the twin born first is usually attributed to the second twin's predisposition to depression at birth ("asphyxia"). We analyzed the etiologic roles of birth order, presentation, and depression at birth in the development of the respiratory distress syndrome in matched case-control populations drawn from 221 preterm twin pairs. Among the 39 twin pairs discordant for respiratory distress syndrome, the second twin was the affected member in 31 pairs. Second birth order was the only independent risk factor, but only in vaginal deliveries (matched odds ratio, 14.2; 95 percent confidence interval, 2.5 to 81.1). Second twins delivered abdominally did not have an increased risk relative to first twins (odds ratio, 0.9; confidence interval, 0 to 17.8). When depression at birth was evaluated as an outcome variable, malpresentation, rather than birth order, was the major risk factor (independent matched odds ratios of 2.7 [confidence interval, 1.0 to 7.5] and 1.3 [0.7 to 2.5], respectively). Thus, second twins' increased risk of respiratory distress syndrome cannot be explained by a predisposition to depression at birth; a more important factor may be that second twins do not benefit from the salutary effects of labor to the same extent as first twins.