Very-low-birthweight (VLBW) infants are usually intubated at birth and mechanically ventilated at neonatal intensive-care units (NICUs). The objectives of this study were to evaluate the use of early nasal continuous positive airway pressure (NCPAP) in a regional cohort and to determine to what extent VLBW infants need transfer to a regional NICU from special-care units (SCUs) that primarily use early NCPAP for respiratory care. We compared the outcome for infants at SCUs and NICUs in Stockholm County, Sweden, from 1988 to 1993. All infants with birthweights of less than 1501 g were included in this study (n = 687). Fifty-nine per cent of the infants (400/687) were supported using only supplemental oxygen or NCPAP. Of these, 170 (25%) received only supplemental oxygen and 230 (34%) were supported only by NCPAP. A total of 350 (51%) infants received early NCPAP. Of these infants, 120 (34%) later required mechanical ventilation. Only 167 (24%) infants received mechanical ventilation from the beginning Failure of NCPAP was significantly associated with the presence of respiratory distress syndrome. A total of 161/412 (39%) infants were transferred from SCUs to NICUs. Of infants < or = 26 weeks' gestation and infants > 26 weeks, 71% and 34% were transferred, respectively. Total mortality was 16%. The mortality for transfers was 20% compared to an overall mortality in SCU and NICU infants of 9% and 15%, respectively. The overall incidence of intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH), grade III-IV was 8%, periventricular leucomalacia (PVL) grade I-IV was 7%, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) requiring cryotherapy was 4.3% and chronic lung disease (CLD) was 14%. There were significant differences in the incidence IVH, PVL, CLD and ROP between SCU and NICU infants in matched gestational age groups. In conclusion, infants with a gestational age of 27 weeks or more may often be adequately cared for at SCUs without mechanical ventilation by using early NCPAP. However, infants with a gestational age of 26 weeks or less should be transferred to tertiary-care centres preferably before birth, because they will often require mechanical ventilation.