The risk of SIDS is increased up to fourfold by maternal smoking, by an unknown mechanism. We tested the hypothesis that prenatal nicotine exposure can cause abnormal postnatal development of breathing control. Osmotic minipumps were implanted into pregnant rats to deliver either nicotine bitartrate (6 mg kg-1 day-1) (NIC) or saline (CON) throughout gestation and for 1 week postnatal. NIC and CON rat pups from 4 age groups (means 3, 8, 18 and 34 days) were studied. Ventilation was recorded at 30 degrees C in air and after 10 min at FIO2 = 0.1 and 0.15, and at FICO2 = 0.05. Ventilatory responses to FIO2 = 0.1 and FICO2 = 0.05 showed significant changes with age but were unaffected by NIC at all ages. The weak respiratory responses to FIO2 = 0.15 were unaffected by NIC or age. Oxygen consumption in normoxia and hypoxia, and hypoxic depression of oxygen consumption, declined with age but were not affected by NIC. We conclude that NIC exposure alone has no detectable effect on the postnatal development of respiratory responses to moderate levels of hypoxia or hypercapnia for short periods. However, effects of NIC on the responses to more severe or prolonged stimuli cannot be ruled out.