Low birth weight (LBW) neonates show impaired growth compared with normal birth weight (NBW) neonates. Glutamine (Gln) supplementation benefits growth of weaning piglets, while the effect on neonates is not sufficiently clear. We examined the effect of neonatal Gln supplementation on piglet growth, milk intake and metabolic parameters. Sow-reared pairs of newborn LBW (0·8–1·2 kg) and NBW (1·4–1·8 kg) male piglets received Gln (1 g/kg body mass (BM)/d; Gln-LBW, Gln-NBW; n 24/group) or isonitrogenous alanine (1·22 g/kg BM/d; Ala-LBW; Ala-NBW; n 24/group) supplementation at 1–5 or 1–12 d of age (daily in three equal portions at 07:00, 12:00 and 17:00 by syringe feeding). We measured piglet BM, milk intake (1, 11–12 d), plasma metabolite, insulin, amino acid (AA) and liver TAG concentrations (5, 12 d). The Gln-LBW group had higher BM (+7·5%, 10 d, P = 0·066; 11–12 d, P < 0·05) and milk intake (+14·7%, P = 0·015) than Ala-LBW. At 5 d, Ala-LBW group had higher plasma TAG (+34·7%, P < 0·1) and lower carnosine (–22·5%, P < 0·05) than Ala-NBW and Gln-LBW, and higher liver TAG (+66·9%, P = 0·029) than Ala-NBW. At 12 d, plasma urea was higher (+37·5%, P < 0·05) with Gln than Ala supplementation. Several proteinogenic AA in plasma were lower (P < 0·05) in Ala-NBW v. Gln-NBW. Plasma arginine was higher (P < 0·05) in Gln-NBW v Ala-NBW piglets (5, 12 d). Supplemental Gln moderately improved growth and milk intake and affected lipid metabolism in LBW piglets and AA metabolism in NBW piglets, suggesting effects on intestinal and liver function.