This study presents the first measurements using near infrared spectroscopy of changes in regional hemodynamics as a response to a visual stimulus in awake infants. Ten infants aged 3 d to 14 wk viewed a checkerboard with a 5-Hz pattern reversal. The emitter and detector (optodes) of a near infrared spectrophotometer were placed over the occipital region of the head. Changes in concentration of oxy- and deoxyhemoglobin (Hbo2 and Hb) were measured and compared during 10-s epochs of stimulus on and off. A control group of 10 infants aged 18 d to 13 wk were examined with the same setup, but with the optodes over the frontoparietal region. In the test group the total hemoglobin concentration (Hbo2 + Hb) increased while the stimulus was on by a mean (+/-SD) of 2.51 (+/-1.48) micromol x L(-1). Nine out of 10 infants showed an Hbo2 increase, and 9 out of 10 an Hb increase related to the stimulus. There was no significant change in any of these parameters in the control group. The results imply that there is increased cerebral blood flow due to stimulation that is specific to the visual cortex and that infants, unlike adults, show increased cerebral oxygen utilization during activation that outstrips this hemodynamic effect. The study demonstrates that near infrared spectroscopy can be used as a practical and noninvasive method of measuring visual functional activation and its hemodynamic correlates in the awake infant.