To characterize changes in pulmonary resistance, timing, and respiratory drive during periodic breathing, we studied 10 healthy preterm infants (body wt 1,340 +/- 240 g, postconceptional age 35 +/- 2 wk). Periodic breathing in these infants was defined by characteristic cycles of ventilation with intervening respiratory pauses greater than or equal to 2 s. Nasal airflow was recorded with a pneumotachometer, and esophageal or pharyngeal pressure was recorded with a fluid-filled catheter. Pulmonary resistance at half-maximal tidal volume, inspiratory time (TI), expiratory time (TE), and mean inspiratory flow (VT/TI) were derived from computer analysis of five cycles of periodic breathing per infant. In 80% of infants periodic breathing was accompanied by completely obstructed breaths at the onset of ventilatory cycles; the site of airway obstruction occurred within the pharynx. The first one-third of the ventilatory phase of each cycle was accompanied by the highest airway resistance of the entire cycle (168 +/- 98 cmH2O.l-1.s). In all infants TI was greatest at the onset of the ventilatory cycle, VT/TI was maximal at the midpoint of the cycle, and TE was longest in the latter two-thirds of each cycle. A characteristic increase and subsequent decrease of 4.5 +/- 1.9 ml in end-expiratory volume also occurred within each cycle. These results demonstrate that partial or complete airway obstruction occurs during periodic breathing. Both apnea and periodic breathing share the element of upper airway instability common to premature infants.