We have determined the effects of preterm birth on the postnatal development of ventilatory responses to progressive hypoxia and hypercapnia in awake lambs. Hypoxic and hypercapnic rebreathing tests were performed at weekly intervals in 5 preterm (born at 135 +/- 0.5 d) and 5 term (born at 146 +/- 0.2 d) lambs up to 6-7 weeks after birth. Term lambs were also studied at 25 weeks after birth. During rebreathing tests, we measured arterial PO2 and PCO2 and related them to minute ventilation (VI). Owing to variability in resting PAO2, hypoxic sensitivity was defined as the percentage increase in VI when PaO2 fell to 60% of resting values. Hypoxic sensitivities of preterm lambs did not change with age (68.9 +/- 24.4%), whereas values for term lambs more than doubled over the first 6 weeks (day 2, 73.9 +/- 15.8%; week 6, 227.4 +/- 24.9%) but returned to early postnatal values by week 25 (87.0 +/- 21.2%). Hypercapnic sensitivities (ml min-1 kg-1 mmHg CO2(-1) of preterm lambs were lower than those of term lambs between day 2 and week 2, but reached values in term lambs thereafter. We conclude that preterm birth abolishes the normal postnatal maturation of hypoxic ventilatory sensitivity, and temporarily depresses hypercapnic sensitivity.