The purposes of this investigation were to describe the changes in 1) dynamic compliance of the lungs, 2) airflow resistance, and 3) breathing pattern that occur during sleep in normal adult humans. Six subjects wore a tightly fitting face mask. Flow and volume were obtained from a pneumotachograph attached to the face mask. Transpulmonary pressure was calculated as the difference between esophageal pressure obtained with a balloon and mask pressure. At least 20 consecutive breaths were analyzed for dynamic compliance, airflow resistance, and breathing pattern during wakefulness, non-rapid-eye-movement stage 2 and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. Dynamic compliance did not change significantly. Airflow resistance increased during sleep; resistance was 3.93 +/- 0.56 cmH2O X 1-1 X s during wakefulness, 7.96 +/- 0.95 in stage 2 sleep, and 8.66 +/- 1.43 in REM sleep (P less than 0.02). By placing a catheter in the retroepiglottic space and thus dividing the airway into upper and lower zones, we found the increase in resistance occurred almost entirely above the larynx. Decreases in tidal volume, minute ventilation, and mean inspiratory flow observed during sleep were not statistically significant.