A prospective, randomized, controlled evaluation comparing a 4-mg/kg loading dose (LD) of gentamicin to the standard regimen of 2.5 mg/kg every 12, 18 or 24 h was conducted in critically ill neonates. The objective of the study was to compare the time required to achieve a therapeutic peak serum concentration (i.e. the number of dosing intervals) and to compare the number of serum concentrations outside the therapeutic range as an indicator of potential toxicity between the treatment groups. Eighteen of 26 patients, 5 of 13 in the control group and 13 of 13 in the LD group (p = 0.012) achieved an initial peak concentration of > or = 5 micrograms/ml following the first gentamicin infusion. There were no significant differences between the control and LD group in the number of potentially toxic serum concentrations. When patients were subdivided according to gestational age (GA), patients of < or = 34 weeks had significantly lower initial peak concentrations. A LD of 4 mg/kg in neonates, particularly those of < or = 34 weeks GA, produced a therapeutic peak concentration following the initial dose. There is a minimal risk of attaining serum concentrations commonly associated with toxicity providing the dosage interval is adjusted based on serum creatinine determinations. Based on this study, infants of > 34 weeks GA generally achieve therapeutic peak concentrations after the first dose with conventional dosing; however, in younger infants an appropriate LD is required to reach therapeutic concentrations early in therapy.