Infants aged 0-6 months were assessed for respiratory and arousal responses to mild asphyxia during sleep. Ventilatory sensitivity was assessed from the relationship between inspired carbon dioxide (FICO2) and ventilation. Arousal and ventilatory sensitivity were significantly related. Respiratory response increased with age and was greater in quiet sleep than in REM sleep. Arousal occurred more frequently in REM sleep (55/102) than quiet sleep (38/165, P < 0.05) and more frequently at the newborn age (54/117) than at 6 months (13/58, P < 0.05). Arousal in quiet sleep occurred in babies with high ventilatory sensitivities (mean ventilatory asphyxial sensitivity (VAS) 0.476 +/- 0.288) and in REM sleep was more associated with low ventilatory sensitivities (mean VAS 0.194 +/- 0.334, P <0.05). We conclude infants respond to mild asphyxia during sleep with an increase in ventilation, an arousal or both. The exact response is dependent on age and sleep state.