To determine whether prematurely born infants with a history of idiopathic apneic episodes are more prone than other infants to life-threatening apnea during recovery from anesthesia, the authors prospectively studied 214 infants (173 full term, 41 premature) who received anesthesia. Fifteen premature infants had a preanesthetic history of idiopathic apnea. Six of these required mechanical ventilation because of idiopathic apneic episodes during emergence from anesthesia. Two were ventilated for other reasons, and seven recovered normally. Infants ventilated for apnea were younger (postnatal age 1.6 +/- 1.2 months, mean +/- SD; conceptual age 38.6 +/- 3.0 weeks) than those who recovered normally (postnatal age 5.6 +/- 2.7 months; conceptual age 55.1 +/- 11.3 weeks) (P less than 0.01). No other premature or full-term infant was ventilated because of postoperative apneic episodes. The authors conclude that anesthetics may unmask a defect in ventilatory control of prematurely born infants younger than 41-46 weeks conceptual age who have a preanesthetic history of idiopathic apnea.