Thrombocytopenia is a common occurrence (20%) in sick neonates, but the causes have not been well studied. In this report we demonstrate that thrombocytopenia in the neonate is characterized by increased platelet destruction as shown by shortened homologous 111In-oxine-labeled platelet life spans. Thirty-one prospectively studied thrombocytopenic neonates were investigated by measuring the 111In-labeled platelet life span, platelet-associated IgG (PAIgG), and coagulation screening tests. In every infant, the thrombocytopenia was shown to have a destructive component since the mean platelet life span was significantly shortened to 65 +/- 6 (mean +/- SEM) hours with a range of one to 128 hours compared with adult values (212 +/- 8; range, 140 to 260; gamma function analysis). The platelet survival was directly related to the lowest platelet count and inversely related to both the highest mean platelet volume and duration of the thrombocytopenia. In 22 infants the percent recovery of the radiolabeled platelets was less than 50%, which suggested that increased sequestration also contributed to the thrombocytopenia. Infants with laboratory evidence of disseminated intravascular coagulation (n = 8) or immune platelet destruction evidenced by elevated levels of PAIgG (n = 13) had even shorter platelet survivals and a more severe thrombocytopenia compared with the ten infants in whom an underlying cause for the thrombocytopenia was not apparent. Full-body scintigraphic images obtained in 11 infants showed an increased uptake in the spleen and liver, with a spleen-to- liver ratio of 3:1. This study indicates that thrombocytopenia in sick neonates is primarily destructive, with a subgroup having evidence of increased platelet sequestration.