The contractile properties of pre- and early postnatal respiratory muscles are incompletely understood. We examined the effects of development on isometric contractile properties, with an emphasis on properties at 37 degrees C. One-day-old (n = 10), 3-wk-old (n = 10), and adult (n = 10) rabbits were studied. Isometric contractile properties of costal diaphragm strips were measured in vitro by using direct stimulation. Twitch and maximal, i.e., fused, tetanic force production increased with strip dimension and with age. Maximal tetanic force developed per unit cross-sectional area (stress) was significantly decreased in muscle from 1-day olds, whereas it was greatest in muscle from 3-wk olds. Twitch stress was similar in all three groups. Only when the stimulus duration was prolonged did twitch and fused tetanic force achieve maximal values values for the 1-day-old and 3-wk-old strips, suggesting less effective excitation-contraction coupling in those muscles. We conclude that immature rabbit diaphragm has unique isometric contractile properties and stimulus parameter requirements that cannot be deduced from studies using mature diaphragm.