To compare the effect of human colostrum (days 1 to 3 postpartum) and mature milk (days 170 ± 24 postpartum) on the function of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNL), Ficoll-Hypaque-separated PMNL from the blood of 60 healthy volunteers were incubated with whole colostrum, colostral lipid, and colostral aqueous phase from 30 mothers, or with mature whole milk and its separated components from 30 mothers, and tested for resting and zymosan-stimulated oxidative metabolism, functional activity, and the presence of Fc receptors. Stimulated oxygen consumption, quantitative nitroblue tetrazolium dye reduction, [1-14C]glucose utilization, and Fc receptors were significantly (P < 0.05 to P < 0.001) less in PMNL exposed to whole human colostrum or colostral lipid than in non-lipid-exposed cells or cells exposed to the aqueous phase of colostrum. In contrast, PMNL exposed to whole mature milk or to its lipid or aqueous phase caused no significant decrease in any of these parameters when compared to nonexposed cells. In assays of phagocytosis, colostral PMNL or blood PMNL exposed to colostral lipid had a significant (P < 0.001) decrease in their ability to ingest [methyl-3H]thymidine-labeled Staphylococcus aureus when compared to non-lipid-exposed PMNL. Blood PMNL exposed to lipid from mature milk had no decrease in ability to ingest S. aureus. Analysis of total lipid and total and individual fatty acid content revealed a uniform increase in all components in mature milk when compared to colostrum. Lipid or lipid-soluble material present in human colostrum but not mature milk causes inhibition of phagocytosis and respiratory burst-related activities of PMNL.