PURPOSE: The use of medicines among newborns admitted to intensive care units is characterized by a high prevalence of off-label/unlicensed use and a wide variability in the absence of international guidelines. A prospective cross-sectional study was organized with the aim to analyse drug prescriptions among all 107 Italian level III neonatal intensive care units. METHODS: An online questionnaire was used to collect detailed information for each newborn, and a classification was made about the license status of all prescriptions. In addition, prescriptions were analysed taking into account a practical guide prepared by the Italian Society of Neonatology (ISN). RESULTS: The 1-day survey (May-July 2014) regarded 220 newborn infants admitted to 36/107 Italian neonatal intensive care units: 191 prematures and 29 born at term. In total, 720 prescriptions (corresponding to 79 different drugs) were analysed: 191 (26.5 %) followed the terms of the product license, 529 (73.5 %) were off-label or unlicensed: 193/220 newborns (87.7 %) received at least one off-label/unlicensed prescription. Antiinfectives were the most common medicine used, followed by respiratory drugs and antianaemics; in an off-label manner, the most common was cardiovascular and central nervous system (CNS) drugs, gastrointestinals and antiinfectives. The most common categories of off-label use were age (34.4 %) and dosing frequency (20.6 %). Compared to ISN practical guide, prescriptions adhered more frequently to indications (100 % for ampicillin/sulbactam, >80 % for ampicillin, fluconazole, fentanyl, ranitidine and vancomicin). CONCLUSIONS: Our results confirm the high prevalence of off-label/unlicensed drug use in the neonatal population and underline a better adherence to indications based on clinical practice, suggesting the need to update information contained in the data sheets of medicines.