Two respiratory-related areas, the para-facial respiratory group/retrotrapezoid nucleus (pFRG/RTN) and the pre-Bötzinger complex/ventral respiratory group (preBötC/VRG), are thought to play key roles in respiratory rhythm. Because respiratory output patterns in response to respiratory and metabolic acidosis differ, we hypothesized that the responses of the medullary respiratory neuronal network to respiratory and metabolic acidosis are different. To test these hypotheses, we analysed respiratory-related activity in the pFRG/RTN and preBötC/VRG of the neonatal rat brainstem–spinal cord in vitro by optical imaging using a voltage-sensitive dye, and compared the effects of respiratory and metabolic acidosis on these two populations. We found that the spatiotemporal responses of respiratory-related regional activities to respiratory and metabolic acidosis are fundamentally different, although both acidosis similarly augmented respiratory output by increasing respiratory frequency. PreBötC/VRG activity, which is mainly inspiratory, was augmented by respiratory acidosis. Respiratory-modulated pixels increased in the preBötC/VRG area in response to respiratory acidosis. Metabolic acidosis shifted the respiratory phase in the pFRG/RTN; the pre-inspiratory dominant pattern shifted to inspiratory dominant. The responses of the pFRG/RTN activity to respiratory and metabolic acidosis are complex, and involve either augmentation or reduction in the size of respiratory-related areas. Furthermore, the activation pattern in the pFRG/RTN switched bi-directionally between pre-inspiratory/inspiratory and post-inspiratory. Electrophysiological study supported the results of our optical imaging study. We conclude that respiratory and metabolic acidosis differentially affect activities of the pFRG/RTN and preBötC/VRG, inducing switching and shifts of the respiratory phase. We suggest that they differently influence the coupling states between the pFRG/RTN and preBötC/VRG.