Experiments were carried out on the in vitro brainstem–spinal cord preparation of the newborn rat to analyse the effects of substance P (SP) on phrenic motoneuron (PMN) activity. In current-clamp mode, SP significantly depolarized PMNs, increased their input resistance, decreased the rheobase current and shifted the firing frequency–intensity relationships leftwards, but did not affect spike frequency adaptation or single spike configuration. The neurokinin receptor agonist NK1 had SP-mimetic effects, whereas the NK3 and NK2 receptor agonists were less effective and ineffective, respectively. In a tetrodotoxin-containing aCSF, only SP or the NK1 receptor agonist were still active. No depolarization was observed when the NK1 receptor agonist was applied in the presence of muscarine. In voltage-clamp mode, SP or the NK1 receptor agonist produced an inward current (ISP) which was not significantly reduced by extracellular application of tetraethylammonium, Co2+, 4-aminopyridine or Cs+. In aCSF containing tetrodotoxin, Co2+ and Cs+, ISP was blocked by muscarine. No PMN displayed any M-type potassium current but only a current showing no voltage sensitivity over the range −100 to 0 mV, reversing near the expectedEK+, hence consistent with a leak current. SP application to the spinal cord only (using a partitioned chamber) significantly increased the phrenic activity. Pretreatment with the NMDA receptor antagonist dl-2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (AP5) decreased the C4 discharge duration and blocked the effect of SP, thus exhibiting an NMDA potentiation by SP. In conclusion, SP modulates postsynaptically the response of phrenic motoneurons to the inspiratory drive through the reduction of a leak conductance and the potentiation of the NMDA component of the synaptic input.