Bacterial sepsis is still a leading cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality. Early onset sepsis in particular, presents with a different clinical course and involves other pathogens than sepsis later in life. In this study, plasma concentrations and mRNA expression of granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, and soluble intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (sICAM-1) of neonates with early onset sepsis were evaluated in cord blood and during the first days of life. Irrespective of prematurity, plasma levels of G-CSF, TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, IL-6, and IL-8, but not sICAM-1, were excessively elevated in septic neonates when compared with both healthy infants and infants with clinically suspected but not confirmed sepsis. Compared with the corresponding maternal levels, neonatal cytokine cord plasma levels were likewise highly elevated, indicating the endogenous cytokine production by the neonate. With the exception of TNF-alpha, mRNA expression in blood cells from septic infants was, however, not more frequently detectable than in those from nonseptic patients. Cytokine levels decreased significantly within the first days of life, whereas levels of sICAM-1 and C-reactive protein increased during the same time period. In summary, in contrast to C-reactive protein and sICAM-1, cord blood plasma levels, but not the presence of mRNA, of G-CSF, TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, IL-6, and IL-8 can predict neonatal early onset sepsis with a high sensitivity and specificity. Cell types other than blood cells are likely to contribute considerably to the high cytokine production in septic newborns.