1. In vivo extracellular recordings were made of 171 dorsal horn cells in both superficial and deep laminae in urethane-anaesthetized newborn rats aged 3, 6, 10 and 21 days, and their response to single and repeated stimuli to primary afferent fibres investigated. 2. No long-latency spike responses were evoked in response to C fibre stimulation in pups at postnatal day 3 (P3) or P6, while by P10, 35 % of cells had a C fibre response. Latencies of response to A fibre skin stimulation were very long and varied widely in the youngest animals, particularly in superficial cells, but mean latencies decreased with postnatal age, from 33.1 +/- 2.78 ms at P3 to 7.3 +/- 0.3 ms at P21. The mean number of spikes evoked by a single A fibre skin stimulus was remarkably consistent between cells and not significantly different in superficial and deep laminae at each age. The mean value of 5.1 +/- 0.6 at P3 increased to 7.0 +/- 1.4 at P10. 3. Repeated stimulation of cutaneous A fibres at 0.5 Hz at twice the threshold level did not significantly alter the magnitude of the evoked response but led to shifts in latency, or 'latency jitter', which decreased with age. Deeper cells displayed more latency jitter than superficial cells. 4. Repeated stimulation of cutaneous A fibres at 0.5 Hz at twice the threshold level produced considerable sensitization in a population of dorsal horn cells in the neonate. This sensitization was unlike the classic C fibre-evoked 'wind-up' observed in adult dorsal horn. The direct A fibre-evoked activity did not increase, but the background activity increased during repetitive stimulation leading to a prolonged after-discharge beyond the stimulation period. At P6, 33 % of cells were sensitized, displaying a mean after-discharge of 70.6 +/- 18 s. At P10, only 6 % were sensitized, with a mean after-discharge of 63 s, and by P21, sensitization was no longer observed. 5. The present study demonstrates that the postsynaptic activity evoked in neonatal dorsal horn cells by cutaneous afferents differs considerably from that in adults. The results may account for the known behavioural reflex sensitization to low-intensity cutaneous stimulation observed in neonatal rats and man.