Surfactant therapy is an established part of routine clinical management of babies with respiratory distress syndrome. An initial dose of about 100 mg/kg is usually needed to compensate for the well documented deficiency of alveolar surfactant in these babies, and repeated treatment is required in many cases. Recent experimental and clinical data indicate that large doses of exogenous surfactant may be beneficial also in conditions characterized by inactivation of surfactant, caused by, for example, aspiration of meconium, infection, or disturbed alveolar permeability with leakage of plasma proteins into the airspaces. The acute response to surfactant therapy depends on the quality of the exogenous material (modified natural surfactants are generally more effective than protein-free synthetic surfactants), timing of treatment in relation to the clinical course (treatment at an early stage of the disease is better than late treatment, and may reduce the subsequent need for mechanical ventilation), and mode of delivery (rapid instillation via a tracheal tube leads to more uniform distribution and is more effective than slow airway infusion). Treatment with aerosolized surfactant improves lung function in animal models of surfactant deficiency or depletion, but is usually associated with large losses of the nebulized material in the delivery system. Furthermore, data from experiments on immature newborn lambs indicate that treatment response may depend on the mode of resuscitation at birth, and that manual ventilation with just a few large breaths may compromise the effect of subsequent surfactant therapy. The widespread clinical use of surfactant has reduced neonatal mortality and lowered costs for intensive care in developed countries. The hydrophobic surfactant proteins SP-B and SP-C are probably essential for optimal biophysical and physiological activity of exogenous surfactants isolated from mammalian lungs, and the dose-effectiveness (in part reflecting resistance to inactivation) can be further improved by enrichment with SP-A. The development of new artificial surfactant substitutes, based on synthetic analogues of the native surfactant proteins, is an important challenge for future research.