Introduction: Although the exact pathophysiological mechanisms of both necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and late-onset sepsis (LOS) in preterm infants are yet to be elucidated, evidence is emerging that the gut microbiota plays a key role in their pathophysiology. Areas covered: In this review, initial microbial colonization and factors influencing microbiota composition are discussed. For both NEC and LOS, an overview of studies investigating preclinical alterations in gut microbiota composition and fecal volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is provided. Fecal VOCs are considered to reflect not only gut microbiota composition, but also their metabolic activity and concurrent interaction with the host. Expert review: Heterogeneity in study protocols and applied analytical techniques hampers reliable comparison between outcomes of different microbiota studies, limiting the ability to draw firm conclusions. This dilemma is illustrated by the finding that study results often cannot be reproduced, or even contradict each other. A NEC- and sepsis specific microbial or metabolic signature has not yet been discovered. Identification of ‘disease-specific’ VOCs and microbiota composition may increase understanding on pathophysiological mechanisms and may allow for development of an accurate screening tool, opening avenues towards timely identification and initiation of targeted treatment for preterm infants at increased risk for NEC and sepsis.