Preterm neonates are vulnerable to infection as a result of a compromised immune system. The function of neutrophils from 'well', 'stressed', and 'maturing' preterm neonates was compared with term neonate and adult neutrophils using a whole-blood phagocytosis assay. Cell surface expression of complement receptors and immunoglobulin G receptors was measured on neutrophils in whole blood from the same samples. Fewer actively phagocytosing neutrophils were found in all preterm neonate samples, especially in maturing neonates. Phagocytic rates were slower, and the number of Escherichia coli ingested was smaller in preterm neonate than in term neonate neutrophils. Expression of immunoglobulin G receptors and complement receptor 3 on neutrophils was not directly related to phagocytic activity.