We designed an in vitro assay to detect the presence of lactose in the tracheal aspirates of premature, ventilator-dependent infants. This method was employed to identify recurrent, unrecognized aspiration, which could prolong the requirements for ventilator support and contribute to the development of chronic lung disease. One hundred five determinations of lactose were performed on the tracheal fluid obtained from 42 ventilator-dependent infants who were receiving enteral feedings. There was a wide range of lactose levels (0 to 3,270 nmol lactose/ml tracheal aspirate). Six infants had samples that were highly suggestive of aspiration (greater than 200 nmol lactose/ml tracheal aspirate). Twenty infants had questionably positive samples (25 to 200 nmol lactose/ml tracheal aspirate), and 16 infants had samples that were considered negative for aspiration (less than 25 nmol lactose/ml tracheal aspirate).