The effect of a 50% increment or decrement in the recommended 5 ml/kg dose of a commercially available surfactant (Exosurf Neonatal) on the alveolar-arterial oxygen gradient was investigated in a multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled rescue trial conducted at 15 hospitals in the United States. Two doses of three different volumes (2.5, 5.0, and 7.5 ml/kg) were compared with two 5.0 ml/kg doses of air in 281 infants weighing ≥ 1250 gm who had respiratory distress syndrome requiring mechanical ventilation and an arterial/alveolar oxygen ratio < 0.22. The first dose was given between 2 and 24 hours of age, and the second dose was given 12 hours later to all infants who still required mechanical ventilation. Infants were stratified at entry by gender and the magnitude of the arterial/alveolar oxygen ratio. The air placebo arm of the study was terminated early when reductions in mortality rates were proved in another rescue trial of this surfactant in infants with the same birth weights. For the first 48 hours, administration of a 2.5 ml/kg dose of surfactant provided less improvement in the alveolar-arterial oxygen gradient than doses of 5.0 and 7.5 ml/kg, which were equivalent. Similar results were observed in mean airway pressure (p < 0.05). There were no significant differences among the three dosage groups in mortality rate, air leak, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, and other complications of prematurity. There were no pulmonary hemorrhages in any group. Reflux of surfactant occurred more frequently in the 5.0 and 7.5 ml/kg groups. These results indicate that more sustained improvements in oxygenation are provided, with equal safety, by the standard two 5.0 ml/kg rescue doses of this surfactant than by the 2.5 ml/kg dose. No further benefit is gained from two larger doses given 12 hours apart. (J PEDIATR 1994;124:294-301). © 1994 Mosby, Inc. All rights reserved.