Lambing/Kidding and Difficult Births (Dystocia)
Introduction: Sheep and goats are
gregarious by nature and any act of withdrawal is a sign of a problem or pending
parturition. An animal that seeks seclusion by moving off from the rest of the
group may actually be in the early stages of the birthing process. During this
period, the ewe/doe may experience a "stress syndrome" or what is
often called first stage labor. A basic understanding of the stages,
progression, and position of a normal birth is essential. A list of
lambing/kidding supplies can be found on page B528.
Stages of the Birthing Process:
A. Stage 1:
- Some signs that may be seen include uneasiness, kicking, pawing the
ground, lying down and getting up frequently, and sporadic urinating or
attempts at urination. There may also be some vaginal discharge and
obvious uterine contractions. Visible signs of early labor may or may not
be seen in all animals.
- This stage lasts 1-8 hours and may be longer in first time mothers.
- Stage 1 ends with the fetal parts entering the birth canal.
B. Stage 2:
- Visible signs of second stage labor include appearance of the water sac
and evidence of a foot or leg exiting the birth canal.
- This stage lasts about 1-2 hours (15 to 30 minutes per lamb/kid).
- Stage 2 ends with birth of the lamb/kid.
C. Stage 3:
- This stage is where the placenta or fetal membranes are passed. This
occurs 15 to 20 minutes after the birth of the lamb/kid. Tradition states
that it is not good for the ewe/doe to eat her placenta. In some cases,
this is not true because it is a natural process that reduces predator
attraction to the flock/herd or ewe/doe. The placenta is also rich in the
hormone oxytocin, which aids in the milk let-down and the uterine
When to Give Assistance:
- If an animal is in stage 1 of labor for longer than 8 hours.
- If in stage 2, any of the following occurs:
- The mother has been straining for 30 minutes with no progress.
- The water sac is observed for longer than 1 hour and the animal is not
trying to push.
- The animal is showing signs of severe distress or fatigue, including
bleeding from the rectum of the mother or a swollen tongue of the lamb or
- It can visually be determined that the lamb/kid is coming in an abnormal
way. (For example, you see 3 or more feet, the tail, etc.)
- If the fetal membranes have not passed within 12 hours after delivery.
Dystocia (Lambing or Kidding Difficulty):
Dystocia, or difficult birth, is common in sheep or goats and causes the
death of many lambs/kids and ewes/does. Yearling mothers are much more
susceptible to problems than mature animals that have given birth previously.
Obesity and lack of exercise during late pregnancy increase the chances of
The ability to recognize lambing/kidding difficulty is as important as proper
technique in relieving dystocia. A common error of the inexperienced producer is
to intervene too early in the birthing process. Because it increases the risk of
infection of the female reproductive tract, vaginal examination of the ewe/doe
should not be performed unless completely necessary. A good rule of thumb is
not to intervene as long as progress is being made. When a ewe/doe has been
in full labor for 30 to 40 minutes with no progress, examine her to determine if
the baby is positioned correctly. Because it often leads to hemorrhage, shock,
trauma, and infection, never try to force the cervix open.
There are a few hard and fast rules about handling dystocia, and gradually
developing expertise through experience is often the best way to learn. Beyond
simple assistance, the novice should call a veterinarian when in doubt about
proper procedures. Many animals die because of prolonged manipulation of lambs
or kids in the birth canal and excessive force used to remove them. Never try
to pull or remove a lamb/kid that is in an abnormal position. The position
of the lamb/kid must be corrected before attempting to remove the lamb/kid.
Excessive force can result in shock, hemorrhage, trauma, infection, fertility
problems, and very possibly an eversion or prolapse of the vagina and uterus.
Causes of Dystocia:
- Failure of the cervix to completely dilate.
- A lamb/kid that has an extra large head and shoulders or is just an
overall large lamb/kid.
- Twin lambs/kids coming simultaneously.
- A ewe or doe that was disturbed during the initial phases of
- A lamb/kid that is not in the proper presentation, position, or posture.
Once it has been determined that an animal is having difficulty, the
following steps should be taken:
- Clip excess and dirty wool or hair from around the anus and vulva.
- Clean the vulva, anus, and surrounding areas with dilute chlorhexidine (Nolvasan)
or soapy water, removing all dirt and feces. Begin soaking sleeves and
equipment in a bucket of dilute chlorhexidine. Re-scrub whenever the ewe/doe
contaminates the area with feces during delivery.
- Carefully scrub hands and arms with soap and water, and apply a mild
- It is also recommended that during the lambing/kidding season producers
should keep their fingernails trimmed very short. This will help prevent
tearing the soft tissue of the reproductive tract when assistance is given.
- Next, apply liberal amounts of a lubricant jelly (K-Yô Jelly, Lubrivetô,
etc.) to a plastic obstetrical sleeve. This is one of the most
important steps and should not be ignored! It is almost impossible
to use too much lubricant. Mothers that have been in labor for a long period
often have a dry birth canal or vaginal area. Failure to properly lubricate
the birth canal usually results in trauma and tearing of the soft tissues, a
very difficult birth, and the prospects of infection after delivery. It is
often recommended to put lubricant in the birth canal and even in the uterus
before handling the unborn lamb/kid.
- Shape the hand into a natural wedge, with the fingers tight together. Then
insert the hand with gentle force into the vagina and pelvic areas. Any
forward movement should be done during the breaks in the uterine
contractions. Forcing the hand forward during a contraction or with a
significant amount of effort can cause severe injury and possible death to
the ewe/doe and baby.
- Determine the presentation, position, and posture of the fetus. This can
be aided by referring to the following descriptions.
- Presentation - This refers to whether the lamb/kid is coming head
first, backwards or sideways.
- Position - This refers to whether the lamb/kid is right-side up or
- Posture - This refers to where the legs of the lamb/kid are in
relation to its body.
The normal presentation, position, and posture is a lamb/kid coming head
first, right-side up, with the front legs and head coming through the birth
- It should be determined if the front or hind legs are coming through the
birth canal. This is done by understanding that the joints on the front
limbs flex in the same direction. The joints on the hind limb, however, flex
opposite of each other. In the case of twins, any combination of front and
hind limbs may be present.
- One of the criteria for making a plan of action involves determining if
the lamb/kid is alive or dead. This is done by performing the following
- Pinching between the toes and having the lamb/kid pull away.
- Placing a finger in the mouth and feeling the lamb/kid suckle.
- Gently poking the eye - the lamb/kid usually moves its head.
- Checking rectal tone by placing a finger in the rectum - the tissue around
the finger should contract.
- A dead lamb/kid may be more easily removed by having a
veterinarian perform a fetotomy. This method may also be safer for the mother.
- A dead lamb/kid, if not removed within hours, will severely compromise
the health of the mother.
- A weak, yet live lamb/kid, needs fast removal. This may mean a cesarean
- Immediately seek professional help if any of the following arise:
- No progress is made with 30 minutes of skilled effort to correct the
- After a few attempts, the exact presentation, position, and posture
cannot be determined.
Delivery of a lamb/kid in normal presentation, position, and posture using
- Clean the vulva and surrounding area and use a lubricant (J-Lube, etc.).
Use sleeves and equipment soaked in Nolvasan (Chlorhexidine) to reduce
- Chains or straps should be placed on both front legs with one loop of the
chain/strap above the first joint (fetlock) and a half-hitch between the
fetlock and the hoof.
- If the ewe/doe is down, traction should first be placed on the lambís or
kidís lower limb. (If the mother is standing, place traction on either
limb.) The shoulder of this limb should be pulled through the birth canal.
Often, it is possible to feel the shoulder come through the birth canal.
Traction should then be placed on the opposite leg and the shoulder pulled
through the birth canal. If the second shoulder cannot be pulled into the
birth canal, a cesarean section may be necessary.
- Once both shoulders are through the canal, pressure can be placed on both
limbs and the lamb/kid pulled until the chest is outside of the motherís
pelvis. Frequently, this is where the umbilical cord is compressed and the
lamb/kid struggles to breathe.
- If the lamb/kid is fairly large, it should be rotated 45-90 degrees,
allowing the widest part of the lamb/kid (the hips from side-to-side) to
pass more readily through the widest part of the motherís pelvis. Rotation
of the lamb/kid is accomplished by crossing the legs and applying pressure
to the upper limb and body while rotating.
- All traction placed on the lamb/kid should coincide with the mother having
a contraction and pushing.
- If manipulations need to be performed, it is very beneficial to have a
spinal block (epidural) administered. Consult a veterinarian for specifics.
Abnormal Presentations, Positions, and Postures:
All of the steps (1-7) outlined above should be followed in each dystocia
Delivery of a lamb/kid that is coming backward, but in normal position and
- A large lamb/kid should be rotated 45-90 degrees before attempting to
- Traction should be applied from directly behind the mother in a slightly
upward direction (towards the tail of the mother) until the hips of the
lamb/kid are removed.
- At this point the lamb/kid can be rotated back to normal and removed
* Because the head of the lamb/kid is immersed in fluids during the delivery,
the lamb/kid must be delivered quickly to avoid suffocation.
Normal presentation and position, except one or both front legs are retained:
- With one hand, try to cup the end of the hoof on the leg(s) that is
retained. This will protect the uterus and allow the limb to be pulled
towards the pelvis. Sometimes a chain can be placed on the retained limb for
- If more space is required, one hand can be placed on the chest or head of
the lamb/kid. Then while pushing the lamb/kid back into the pelvis, the
other hand can be used to cup and pull the retained limb into the pelvis.
Two front legs are coming through the pelvis, but the head is turned back:
- The head can be turned to either side, straight behind or even down
between the legs. A lamb/kid in this position is often dead or very weak.
- Once the position of the head is identified, the head should be grasped.
Often, gently placing the fingers in the eye sockets or mouth of the animal
will help give some control. The head can then be manipulated into the
- For extra control, a head snare or a loop of sterilized rope can be
attached to the mouth of the lamb/kid and around the pole of its head.
- It may also be necessary to push the body of the lamb/kid back into the
uterus with one hand while positioning the head with the other. This allows
that little bit of extra room that is often necessary.
Normal presentation, but upside down and leg(s) retained:
- Both front legs should be identified and pulled out of the vagina using
the techniques found in the previous information.
- Once the legs are accessible, the lamb/kid is rotated to normal position
by crossing the legs and placing pressure on the upper leg and shoulders, while
- The head should also be held and rotated along with the body.
- Once the lamb/kid is properly positioned, it can be removed routinely.
Backward presentation, upside down, and both legs retained (breech):
- Attempt to rotate the lamb/kid to an upright position. This is done by
grasping one side of the baby (hock and/or front leg) and pushing down in a
sweeping motion. (In some cases, it may be necessary to get the hind limbs
out and use them to rotate the lamb/kid.)
- Once the lamb/kid is right-side up, but the legs are still retained, pull
the hock of one leg into a flexed position. Then force the hock upwards and
forward while cupping the hoof of that leg. Pull the foot towards the middle
of the lamb/kid and backwards towards the vagina.
- The same technique is used to reposition the opposite leg.
- Once both legs are exposed, the lamb/kid can be delivered routinely.
Backward presentation and right-side up, but legs retained:
- Same as above without rotating the lamb/kid.
Four Legs in the Birth Canal:
- Make sure the legs are all from the same lamb/kid.
- If all 4 limbs are from the same lamb/kid, deliver the hind legs first.
Delivering the hind legs first will allow the head to follow naturally.
- Rotate the lamb/kid if necessary, using the information found in the
With multiple births, it is common to have the legs of
one lamb/kid and the head of another entering the opening of the birth canal at
the same time. If front legs and a head are present in the birth canal, gently
pull on the legs to make sure that the legs and head are from the same lamb/kid.
If the legs and head are not from the same lamb/kid, take plenty of time to
repel (push back) the head of the lamb/kid that is present and follow the legs
up to the body of the other lamb/kid. Orient the legs and head of the same
lamb/kid in the normal presentation, position, and posture for delivery. Deliver
one lamb/kid, and then follow the same steps to deliver the second, third, etc.
If the problem is simultaneous delivery of twins, repel one back into the
uterus while holding the other. This is accomplished by putting a lamb saver or
snare over the head of the lamb/kid nearest the birth canal and holding it
toward the rear of the mother while repelling the other lamb or kid. Do this
carefully and gently, using lots of lubricant.
- Allowing the mother to be in labor too long before giving assistance.
- Check ewes/does often. Intervene if no progress is being made.
- Trying to deliver a lamb/kid that is in an abnormal position without first
correcting the problem. Never apply traction to a lamb/kid with the head or
leg back without first correcting the problem.
- Applying too much traction. No more force than the equivalent of two
people manually pulling should ever be used.
Note: In most cases where assistance has been given, it is
beneficial to administer antibiotics to the ewe/doe to help prevent potential
bacterial infections. When questions arise, consult a veterinarian!