Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H MRS) was performed within 18 h of birth (median 13, range 4-18 h) on 16 term infants with clinical features of birth asphyxia. Ten infants with no evidence of birth asphyxia were studied as controls at 5-18 (median 8) h after birth. To detect delayed impairments in cerebral energy metabolism, 15 infants suspected of asphyxia underwent 31P MRS at 33-106 (median 62) h of age. Choline, creatine, and N-acetylaspartate (NAA) were detected in spectra located to the basal ganglia in all infants. Lactate was detected in 15 of the 16 infants suspected of asphyxia, but in only 4 of the 10 controls (p < 0.05, chi 2). Glutamine and glutamate (Glx) was detected in 11 infants suspected of asphyxia and in three controls, but this difference was not significant at the 5% level. The spectra revealed no other significant differences between asphyxiated infants and controls. In the asphyxiated infants, there was a negative correlation between the ratio of lactate to creatine in the first 18 h of life and phosphocreatine/inorganic phosphate (PCr/ P(i)) at 33-106 h (p < 0.001). Five severely asphyxiated infants had PCr/P(i) < 0.75 (median 0.53, range 0.14-0.65), indicating a poor neurodevelopmental prognosis, and a further infant died before PCr/Pi could be measured. Ten infants had PCr/P(i) > 0.75 (1.03, 0.76-1.49). Median lactate/creatine was 1.47 (range 0.67-3.81) in the six severely affected subjects, 0.38 (0-1.51) in the latter group, and 0 (0-0.6) in controls (p < 0.0005, Kruskall-Wallis). These results suggest that, after birth asphyxia, cerebral energy metabolism is abnormal during the period when 31P MRS characteristically gives normal results. 1H MRS might be of value in predicting which infants are likely to suffer a decline in cerebral high energy phosphate concentrations and subsequent neurodevelopmental impairment.