Eighty five 24 hour sodium balance studies and creatinine clearance measurements were performed in 70 infants of gestational age 27-40 weeks and postnatal age 3-68 days. The kidney's capacity to regulate sodium excretion was a function of conceptional age (the sum of gestational age and postnatal age) and an independent effect of postnatal age was also observed--extrauterine existence increased the maturation of this function. The sodium balance was negative in 100% of infants of less than 30 weeks' gestation, in 70% at 30-32 weeks, in 46% at 33-35 weeks, and in 0% of greater than 36 weeks, and the incidence of hyponatraemia closely paralleled that of negative sodium balance. Despite a low glomerular filtration rate (GFR) urinary sodium losses were highest in the most immature babies but fractional sodium excretion (FENa) was exponentially related to gestational age. An independent effect of postnatal age could be identified on FENa but not in GFR. These findings indicate that in infants of greater than 33 weeks' gestation sodium conservation is possible because of a favourable balance between the GFR and tubular sodium reabsorption, but that below this age GFR exceeds the limited tubular sodium reabsorption capacity. The rapid increase in sodium reabsorption in the first few postnatal days seems to be due to maturation of distal tubular function, probably mediated by aldosterone. We suggest that the glomerulotubular imbalance for sodium is a consequence of the immaturity of the tubuloglomerular feedback mechanism, and we estimate that the minimum sodium requirement during the first 2 weeks of extrauterine life is 5 mmol (mEq)/kg/day for infants of less than 30 weeks' gestation and 4 mmol (mEq)/kg/day for those born between 30 and 35 weeks.
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