To clarify the relationship between prolactin (PRL) secretion and sleep, three experimental procedures were employed and secretory rates were estimated from plasma levels using a deconvolution procedure. Eight healthy young men participated in two 24-hour studies, one using normal night sleep and one using delayed sleep, to determine the influence of sleep as a whole on the PRL rhythm. Another group of 24 subjects underwent a 1-night study to investigate the relationship between PRL secretion and the internal sleep structure. The influence of sleep quality was studied in two more groups of eight subjects. Secretory rates were calculated by deconvolution from plasma PRL measured at 10-minute intervals. Sleep was recorded polygraphically in all experiments. PRL secretory pulses occurred throughout the 24-hour cycle without significant variation in frequency, but with enhanced pulse amplitude for both night and day sleep periods. Sleep onset was rapidly followed by an increase in secretion, and awakenings coincided with an immediate offset of active secretion. Analyzing the association between secretory pulses and sleep stages demonstrated that PRL secretory rate is low at the time of rapid eye movement sleep onset. Sleep quality appeared not to affect the PRL secretory profile. These results confirmed that PRL secretion is enhanced during the whole sleep period, as inferred from plasma levels. Considering secretory pulses provides a precise determination of the temporal relations between PRL and sleep structure and demonstrates that occasionally poor sleep does not influence PRL secretion in normal humans.