Fetal and maternal plasma levels of catecholamines were measured at birth in 40 women with normal term pregnancies who underwent elective cesarean section. Twenty women were operated on under general anesthesia, and 20 under epidural anesthesia. For comparison, the same measurements were also made in 10 women who underwent vaginal delivery without signs of intrapartum fetal distress. Maternal venous levels of catecholamines were elevated in all three groups as compared to values in the resting adult. The highest levels were found in the vaginal delivery group (norepinephrine and epinephrine, 3.9 +/- 2.1 and 1.1 +/- 1.0 nmoles/L, respectively), and the lowest in the epidural cesarean section group. Fetal outcomes were similar in all three groups, as judged by Apgar scores and by measurements of umbilical arterial blood gases. In spite of that, neonates delivered vaginally showed a markedly higher sympathoadrenal activation (norepinephrine and epinephrine, 31.8 +/- 24.1 and 5.1 +/- 7.6 nmoles/L, respectively) than those born by elective cesarean section. In the latter group, however, it was found that the type of maternal anesthesia influenced fetal sympathoadrenal activation, since neonatal levels of catecholamines were higher in the epidural section group (norepinephrine and epinephrine, 9.5 +/- 6.4 and 4.0 +/- 4.5 nmoles/L, respectively) than in the general anesthesia group (norepinephrine and epinephrine, 3.2 +/- 2.7 and 1.0 +/- 1.4 nmoles/L, respectively). These results may have a certain clinical relevance since fetal sympathoadrenal activation is thought to promote extrauterine adaptation.