Frequency-domain tissue spectroscopy is a method to measure the absolute absorption coefficient of bulk tissues, assuming that a representative model can be found to recover the optical properties from measurements. While reliable methods exist to calculate absorption coefficients from source-detector measurements less than a few centimeters apart along a flat tissue volume, it is less obvious what methods can be used for transmittance through the larger tissue volumes typically associated with neonatal cerebral monitoring. In this study we compare the use of multiple distance frequency-domain measurements processed with (i) a modified Beer–Lambert law method, (ii) an analytic infinite-medium diffusion theory expression, and (iii) a numerical finite element solution of the diffusion equation, with the goal of recovering the absolute absorption coefficient of the medium. Based upon our observations, the modified Beer–Lambert method provides accurate absolute changes in the absorption coefficient, while analytic infinite-medium diffusion theory solutions or finite element-based numerical solutions can be used to calculate the absolute absorption coefficient, assuming that the data can be measured at multiple source-detector distances. We recommend that the infinite-medium multi-distance method or the finite element method be used across large tissue regions for calculation of the absolute absorption coefficient using frequency-domain near-infrared measurements at multiple positions along the head. © 2000 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.