Emergence delirium is a common problem in children recovering from general anaesthesia. We performed a study comparing emergence characteristics in 100 patients who were randomly allocated to receive either 0.3 μg.kg−1 dexmedetomidine, 1 mg.kg−1 propofol or saline 0.9% and undergoing infra-umbilical surgery. The Pediatric Anesthesia Emergence Delirium scale was used to grade emergence delirium. Emergence delirium occurred in 9.4% of children in the dexmedetomidine group compared with 13.9% in the propofol group and 40.6% in the control group (p = 0.004). In the dexmedetomidine group, sedation occurred in 62.5% of children at 10 min after transfer to the recovery area, compared with 44.4% in the propofol group and 12.5% in the control group (p = 0.010). We conclude that dexmedetomidine significantly reduced the incidence of emergence delirium but this was at the expense of a greater incidence of sedation in the recovery period.