In young infants who possess maternally derived respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) antibodies, the antibody response to RSV glycoproteins is relatively poor, despite extensive replication of RSV. In the present study, it was found that cotton rat RSV hyperimmune antiserum suppressed the antibody response to the RSV glycoproteins but not the response to vaccinia virus antigens when the antiserum was passively transferred to cotton rats prior to infection with vaccinia recombinant viruses expressing the RSV envelope glycoproteins. The cotton rats which had their immune responses suppressed by passively transferred antibodies were more susceptible to infection with RSV than were animals inoculated with control serum lacking RSV antibodies. Furthermore, many of the immunosuppressed animals infected with the vaccinia recombinant viruses developed RSV glycoprotein antibodies which had abnormally low neutralizing activities. Thus, preexisting serum RSV antibodies had dramatic quantitative and qualitative effects on the immune response to RSV glycoproteins, which may explain, in part, the poor RSV antibody response of young human infants to infection with RSV. Our observations also suggest that immunosuppression by preexisting, passively acquired RSV antibodies may constitute a major obstacle to RSV immunoprophylaxis during early infancy, when immunization is most needed.