To evaluate the incidence of low cardiac output in preterm infants with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), we measured cardiac output, stroke volume, heart rate, mean arterial blood pressure, and systemic vascular resistance at 8-48 hours of age in 30 preterm infants with RDS who were dependent on inotropic support. We then compared them to 23 normotensive preterm infants with RDS and 27 preterm infants without RDS. RDS infants had a higher cardiac output and lower systemic vascular resistance and blood pressure than infants without RDS. Infants treated with dopamine and dobutamine had a higher cardiac output and heart rate than infants on dopamine alone or the normotensive controls but a lower blood pressure and systemic vascular resistance than the normotensive controls. Supranormal cardiac output (>400 ml/min/kg) was detected in 57% of the infants in the dopamine + dobutamine subgroup (p = 0.009) versus 17% in the normotensive RDS subgroup and 12% in the dopamine subgroup. These data show that high cardiac output is relatively common in infants with RDS dependent on dopamine and dobutamine but is not reflected in the blood pressure.