OBJECTIVES--To determine the number of children from a defined population who use intensive care facilities, to analyse bed occupancy data for those children, and to estimate the number of intensive care beds required to satisfy this demand throughout the year. DESIGN--Examination of admission data books from intensive care units within the four Birmingham health authorities and the neighbouring health authorities. RESULTS--Two hundred and ninety seven children resident within the four Birmingham health authorities used intensive care facilities in a calendar year. One hundred and forty one (47%) of these were admitted for specialist paediatric services. Of the remaining 156, 106 (68%) were cared for in adult intensive care units, 46 (29%) in a paediatric intensive care unit and four (3%) in a special care baby unit. Use of intensive care varied from none to 11 patients each day, and was lowest in the summer and highest during the winter months. During periods of peak demand, one in 19,000 (5.3/100,000) children were using intensive care facilities. CONCLUSIONS--These data provide a population based minimum need for paediatric intensive care beds. They are higher than previous estimates and do not include provision for children from outside Birmingham, or for those denied intensive care due to bed shortages. These factors and the marked seasonal variation in demand need to be considered when planning intensive care services for children if bed shortages are to be avoided.