Neutrophil granulocyte function was assessed in 17 well term infants, 14 stressed infants, and eight infants with group B streptococcal infection. Chemiluminescence production elicited by opsonized zymosan or by a wild strain of type III group B streptococci, as well as phagocytosis and killing of streptococci, were measured. Chemiluminescence production by PMNs of term neonates in response to opsonized zymosan or group B streptococci was equal to that of adult controls. In contrast, six of nine stressed or infected neonates had depressed CL responses upon zymosan challenge. When opsonized type III group B streptococci were used to elicit CL, seven of ten stressed or infected infants had markedly depressed responses. Phagocytosis, as determined by a radiolabeled bacterial uptake technique, was normal in the healthy and stressed neonates. Depressed CL production by the PMNs of stressed or infected neonates was associated with impaired intracellular bactericidal activity, however. These studies indicate that stressed or infected neonates have impaired leukocyte metabolic activation that may be associated with depressed bactericidal activity. Such impairment may contribute to the morbidity and mortality observed in serious neonatal infections.