Whilst exogenous surfactant therapy is central to the management of newborn infants with respiratory distress syndrome, its use in other neonatal lung diseases remains inconsistent and controversial. Here we discuss the evidence and experience in relation to surfactant therapy in newborns with other lung conditions in which surfactant may be deficient or dysfunctional, including meconium aspiration syndrome, pneumonia, congenital diaphragmatic hernia and pulmonary haemorrhage. We find that, for all of these diseases, administration of exogenous surfactant as bolus therapy is frequently associated with transient improvement in oxygenation, likely related to temporary mitigation of surfactant inhibition in the airspaces. However, for none of them is there a lasting clinical benefit of surfactant therapy. By virtue of interrupting disease pathogenesis, lavage therapy with dilute surfactant in MAS offers the greatest possibility of a more pronounced therapeutic effect, but this has yet to be definitively proven. Lavage therapy also involves a greater degree of procedural risk.