In our population, only half of fully nursing women remain amenorrheic 6 months postpartum. The other half recover their menstrual cycles between 90-180 days postpartum in spite of a high suckling frequency and elevated immunoreactive PRL (IR-PRL) concentrations. To further investigate the association of PRL with the recovery of ovarian function, we compared PRL bioactivity (BIO-PRL) 3-4 months postpartum in fully nursing amenorrheic women who subsequently experienced long (> 180 days; n = 5) or short (< 180 days; n = 5) lactational amenorrhea. In the present study, BIO-PRL in plasma was measured by the Nb2 lymphoma cell assay in samples taken before and 30 min after a suckling episode at 0800, 1600 and 2400 h. Women in the long amenorrhea group had higher overall mean BIO-PRL (mean +/- SE, 129.9 +/- 12.1 micrograms/L) than nursing women in the short amenorrhea group (66.6 +/- 5.2 micrograms/L; P < 0.05). Mean basal values were similar, but the women in the long amenorrhea group had more BIO-PRL in response to suckling (160.1 +/- 4.0 vs. 71.9 +/- 6.7 micrograms/L; P < 0.05). Compared with their respective basal values, nursing women in the long amenorrhea group demonstrated increased BIO-PRL in response to suckling, whereas the other group did not. The relationships between BIO-PRL and IR-PRL were similar in the two groups of nursing women before suckling. However, after suckling, the long amenorrhea group had significantly higher BIO-PRL levels than IR-PRL levels (P < 0.05, by likelihood test) than the short amenorrhea group. This suggests that suckling differentially changes in each group either the composition of PRL present or substances that may modify the bioactivity of PRL in plasma.