The experiments were designed to determine the influence of the upper respiratory tract (URT) on liquid flow in the fetal trachea. This flow probably influences pulmonary distension, which is thought to be a major determinant of prenatal lung development. In six fetal sheep the URT could be bypassed by connecting the lower trachea, via an external flowmeter, to a cannula in the amniotic sac. In confirmation of our earlier findings, when the URT was in circuit, the mean rate of tracheal efflux was greater during episodes of fetal breathing movements (FBM) [mean 13.8 +/- 2.6 (SE) ml/h] than during apneic periods (mean 3.2 +/- 1.0 ml/h). When the URT was bypassed there was a reversal of net tracheal flow during FBM episodes (mean 19.6 +/- 5.6 ml/h toward the lungs); during apnea there was a much greater rate of efflux (mean 33.1 +/- 10.2 ml/h) than when the URT was in circuit. Nonlabor uterine contractions were associated with an increased rate of efflux during apnea only when the URT was bypassed. We conclude that during fetal life the URT imposes an essentially unidirectional flow of pulmonary liquid away from the lungs, preventing ingress of amniotic fluid and maintaining constancy of composition of liquid in the developing airways. By retarding outward flow during periods of apnea and thoracic compression and by preventing net influx during episodes of FBM, the URT has the probable effect of maintaining the volume and composition of liquid in the fetal airways within narrow limits.