Longitudinal circulating levels of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) were measured by radioimmunoassay after acid/ethanol extraction of serum or plasma in 44 appropriate-for-gestational age (AGA) premature infants, 7 small-for-gestational age (SGA) premature infants and 9 AGA full-term infants. The subjects were divided into cohorts with gestational age at birth 26-29 weeks, 30-33 weeks, 34-37 weeks and 38-42 weeks (full-term). The premature infants in this study exhibited diminished growth as compared with normal intrauterine growth. In all but the earliest premature infant cohort there was an immediate fall from the mean fetal IGF-I level, as reflected by the cord value, to a basal postnatal circulating level of IGF-I. The basal level of circulating IGF-I in premature infants was related only to gestational age. It increased slowly from 25 weeks gestation until four weeks after full-term equivalent and was independent of time of birth. Full-term infants were distinguished from early premature infants by the occurrence of a prominent postnatal surge in circulating IGF-I levels that was characterised by a significant (P less than 0.02) increase between day 1 and days 10-15. The SGA and AGA infants in the 34-37 week cohort showed similar profiles of circulating IGF-I with no significant difference in cord values between the two groups.