Plasma colloid osmotic pressure (COP) was measured in three groups of very low birthweight infants. Babies in Group 1 (n = 8) were breathing spontaneously and had no respiratory disease. Those in Group 2 (n = 9) received assisted ventilation for hyaline membrane disease (HMD), and those in Group 3 (n = 7) received assisted ventilation for other reasons (five apnoea, two pneumonia). Both assisted ventilation groups had lower mean COP values than spontaneously breathing infants. Mean values (s.e.m.) for Groups 1, 2 and 3, respectively, were: 15.3 (0.6), 11.3 (0.4) and 11.9 mmHg (0.5) (P less than 0.001) on Day 1; and 15.2 (0.4), 12.9 (0.4) and 12.8 mmHg (0.3) (P less than 0.001) on Day 2. The increase from Day 1 to Day 2 was significant for those with HMD (P less than 0.05). Colloid osmotic pressure correlated with mean blood pressure (r = 0.51; P less than 0.001) but not with birthweight, gestation, crystalloid fluid intake or pH. The role of low COP in the pathogenesis of acute respiratory failure in infants with uncomplicated HMD is unclear, but such low COP may contribute to development of pulmonary oedema as a complication, particularly if the ductus arteriosus is still patent and the infants are given high volume intravenous fluids.