Whole cell and membrane deformability are essential for red blood cell (RBC) survival and for effective blood flow. Neonatal RBCs display several specific properties (eg, large size, high hemoglobin F) that could influence their deformation characteristics and contribute to their shortened life span. The present study was designed to compare selected rheologic properties (cellular deformability, pressure required to aspirate RBC into micropipettes, static and dynamic viscoelastic material properties) of neonatal and adult RBCs. RBC deformability, as studied by a rheoscope, was similar for neonates and adults over a shear stress range of 2.5 to 500 dyn/cm2. The pressure required to aspirate RBCs completely into 3.3-micron diameter pipettes was 129 +/- 87 dyn/cm2 for neonatal RBCs and 71 +/- 37 dyn/cm2 for adult RBCs. The aspiration pressure for neonatal and adult RBCs increased with increasing RBC volume, suggesting that the increased mean aspiration pressure for neonatal RBCs resulted from their larger volume. When RBCs with same volume and diameter were compared, the aspiration pressure tended to be smaller for neonatal RBCs than for adult cells. To characterize material properties determining RBC deformability, we measured membrane extensional (shear) and bending elastic moduli, the time constant for elastic recovery from extensional deformation and hemoglobin viscosity (ie, cytoplasmic viscosity) of neonatal and adult RBCs. Membrane surface viscosity and time constant for recovery from bending deformation were calculated. The extensional and bending moduli of neonatal RBCs were slightly smaller (10% and 16%, respectively) compared with adult cells. This suggests that the static resistance of neonatal RBC membrane to deformation and failure in response to a given force is slightly smaller. The time constant for recovery from extensional deformation of neonatal RBCs was larger by 14%, compared with adult cells. The time constant for bending deformation related to the RBC diameter and surface area was increased by 18% in the neonates. Membrane surface viscosity and hemoglobin viscosity were similar for both cell types. These results indicate that the deformability and viscoelastic properties of neonatal RBCs deviate only slightly from those of adult RBCs and that the increased aspiration pressure of neonatal RBCs is solely due to their large size. Some of the specific deformation characteristics observed in this study (increased aspiration pressure, decreased resistance to elastic deformation) may contribute to the shortened life span of neonatal RBCs.