Abstract Hyperbilirubinaemia in newborn infants is generally regarded as a problem, and bilirubin itself as toxic metabolic waste, but the high frequency in newborn infants suggests that the excess of neonatal bilirubin may have a positive function. To investigate the hypothesis that bilirubin has a role as a free-radical scavenger, the rate of rise in serum bilirubin in the first few days of life was measured in 44 infants with five illnesses thought to enhance free-radical production and in 58 control infants. The infants were selected from 2700 consecutive births by exclusion of those with factors known to affect bilirubin metabolism, including enteral feeding. The control infants were those who seemed to be ill and received treatment, including restriction of enteral feeds, but in whom no illness, or disorders not related to free-radical production, were found. The mean serum bilirubin rise was significantly lower in the combined illness group than in the control group (36·1 [95% Cl 26·9-45·3] vs 66·7 [55·9-77·5] μmol.l -1.day -1; p<0·0001). In subgroup analyses the mean rises in infants with circulatory failure, neonatal depression/ asphyxia, aspiration syndromes, and proven sepsis were significantly lower than in controls matched for gestational age and birthweight, but rises in infants with respiratory distress and their matched controls did not differ. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that bilirubin is consumed in vivo as an antioxidant. Such consumption may operate in vivo in addition to the standard pathways for bilirubin metabolism (production, isomerisation, and excretion).