To evaluate muscle relaxant onset times and tracheal intubating conditions, 60 children (ASA physical status I or II) aged 18 to 72 mo were randomly assigned to receive a bolus of either rocuronium 0.6 mg/kg, vecuronium 0.1 mg/kg, or atracurium 0.5 mg/kg. After induction of anesthesia with etomidate 0.2-0.4 mg/kg and fentanyl 1-3 mg/kg, lungs were ventilated with 50% nitrous oxide in oxygen via a face mask. The evoked electromyogram of the adductor pollicis to a train-of-four stimulation every 20 s was monitored. After administration of the muscle relaxant, endotracheal intubation was attempted every 30 s, beginning 30 s after drug administration, until intubation could be achieved with good or excellent conditions. Rocuronium produced acceptable intubating conditions significantly faster (all tracheas intubated within 60 s) compared with vecuronium (120 s) and atracurium (180 s). The quality of intubating conditions at the time of completed intubation was rated significantly better with rocuronium than with vecuronium or atracurium. However, onset to 95% block at the adductor pollicis muscle was not significantly different after rocuronium (92 +/- 46.9 s), vecuronium (112 +/- 33.3 s), or atracurium (134 +/- 57.1 s), and mean neuromuscular block achieved at the point of successful intubation was not complete in all groups. We conclude that clinically acceptable intubating conditions are produced more rapidly with rocuronium than with atracurium or vecuronium.