The most commonly observed severe lung injuries in early life are the respiratory distress syndrome in premature infants and the acute respiratory distress syndrome in children. Both diseases are characterised by alveolar instability, fluid filled airspace and some degree of airway obstruction. In the acute phase, collapsed alveoli can be reopened with positive end-expiratory pressure and lung recruitment. New insight into the physiology of lung recruitment suggests that the shape of the pressure–volume curve is defined by the change in rate of alveolar opening and closing. Reduced lung volumes and severe ventilation maldistribution are found in the acute phase but may persist during childhood. Any severe lung injury in this early phase of life can cause significant structural and functional damage to the developing lung. Follow-up studies of children with chronic lung disease have shown that the functional abnormalities will improve but may still be present in later childhood.