Lambing Problems Can Arise from Abnormal Birth Positions
Assisting Sheep Giving Birth Starts with Understanding Birth Positions
Reading Time: 6 minutes
By Lyn Brown, Shear Perfection Ranch – Lambing is always an exciting time on the ranch, but it can also be a scary time for the first-time shepherd. What are the things we want to see; what are the signs that there could be a pending lambing problem?
While a majority of ewes have very few lambing problems, we still need to be armed with knowledge when those rare instances arise.
These suggestions are not intended as veterinary advice or to be a substitute for professional veterinary care. Rather they are intended to assist you in recognizing potential lambing problems, so you know when you may need to call for professional help.
Suggestions here are only stopgap measures for emergencies when veterinary care is unavailable or delayed in response to lambing problems.
Initially, the most important thing you need to be able to recognize is the difference between a normal and an abnormal birth position.
Figure One shows the normal (anterior) birth position for a lamb: Both forelegs first, with the head resting on the legs.
You can tell if the lamb is right side up or upside down by looking at the feet. If the bottom of the forelegs’ feet face the ground the lamb is right side up.
Although this is a normal position, if the lamb has a large head or shoulders you may still need to assist. This assistance usually can be accommodated by slipping a couple of fingers between the lamb and the ewe’s vulva and massaging the vulva over the head or shoulders a little at a time.
Figure Two is considered a normal posterior birth position, hind feet first with the bottoms of the feet facing the sky. While this isn’t considered to be an atypical position (in fact, it’s seen quite often with the second of twins), you will more often need to assist with the birth. It’s best to have obstetrical gloves on hand for lambing, if available, also clean rags or towels.
Once the hind legs are out, take hold of them with the clean rags or towels and when the ewe has a contraction pull firmly to free the lambs rump. Once you have its rump out, keep pulling to clear the lambs head as quickly as possible. Be careful not to break the umbilical cord during this process: As long as the head is not out the lamb is dependent on the umbilical cord for oxygen.
As soon as the lamb is out, hold it by the hind legs and clear the fluids from the mouth and nose.
Figure Three shows the “one foreleg and head” presentation. This can cause a lambing problem.
Try elevating the ewe’s rump, sometimes the lamb will go back into the womb and will reposition itself into the correct presentation. But chances are you will have to go in and locate the other leg.
Hold the leg already out with one hand and feel for the second leg with the other. Make sure to run your fingers along the length of the leg to be sure you have a front, not a back leg.
Once you’re sure you have the other front leg, hook your fingers beneath the knee and pull it forward beside the other leg. Do this slowly, as too much aggression here could push the head back into the womb and out of position for birth.
Once both legs and head are in proper position, gently pull, timing your pulls with the ewe’s contractions.
Figure Four shows both forelegs correct, but the lamb’s head is down. This is usually easy to deal with. Again, you can try to elevate the ewe’s rump as suggested for the presentation shown in Figure Three. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then locate the lamb’s head and place it above the forelegs, in the typical birth position.
If the lamb’s head continues to flop out of place, either guide it out with fingers or in extreme cases a sterile cord may be tied around the lower jaw and slight pressure maintained while gently pulling forelegs.
Figure Five shows forelegs in the correct stance, but the lamb’s head is turned back.
Basically this is the same problem as shown in Figure Four, but in this case, you may need to push the lamb back into the womb a bit in order to be able to turn its head forward.
In Figure Six, the lamb’s head is entering the birth canal, but no feet.
This is a difficult presentation. Unless it’s a very small lamb and a large ewe, there’s no way for a normal delivery.
You’ll need to push the lamb’s head back in, then reach in and bring its forelegs forward under the head. You’re fighting the ewe’s contractions, so this can be a difficult and exhausting process. Go slow, being careful not to break the lamb’s umbilical cord.
In Figure Seven, the hind legs are coming first, but the lamb’s body is upside down. (Hint: if the bottom of the lamb’s hind feet is facing the ground, the lamb is upside down.)
A large ewe may be able to pass her lamb in this position without assistance. The second lamb in a set of triplets is often in this position. If assistance is needed, pull both hind legs gently and proceed as in Figure Two’s presentation.
Figure Eight shows the lamb’s breech, rump and tail coming first, probably the most difficult positioning to recognize and correct.
If the ewe’s labor is in its early stages, give the process some time to see if the lamb will realign on its own. It’s often hard for one’s hand to tell a rump in the birth canal from a head: Tails can feel like ears!
Take some time to explore the lamb’s body and figure out where all its parts are. As the ewe’s labor advances this can become difficult; the hocks of the hind legs could even lodge against the pelvic bone. You’ll have to fight the ewe’s contractions in moving the lamb away from the birth canal until you can bring the hind legs towards you and then follow the instructions for the presentation shown in Figure Two.
Having said all this, real-life situations aren’t always as simple as we would like them to be. Remember you’ll often be dealing with twin or multiple births: Legs, heads, ears and tails can become entangled. Stay calm, working first with what you can see. Follow the exposed limbs into the birth canal, following the contour of the lamb to give your mind’s eye a full picture of the position of the lamb.
If multiple lambs are present you may need to push the second one back in order to free the first.
Additionally, you’ll likely need more than one person to do this: One person to hold the ewe and the other to assist the ewe in her delivery of the lamb. The adult with the smallest hands is assigned the delivery assistant position.
Don’t let this article scare you away from assisting with sheep giving birth on your homestead or ranch. In my experience (more than 20 years with an average of 50 lambs per year) 95 percent of births are perfectly uneventful with no lambing problems. (I give some of the credit for that to the fact that I raise California Red Sheep, which are easy lambers and great mothers.)
It’s my hope these tips on avoiding lambing problems will give you the knowledge you need when the rare birth complication arises. At the very least it should help you give your vet the information he or she needs to assess your situation.
Countryside is home to sheep! magazine, and features great tutorials on topics such as raising sheep for profit and sheep fencing.
Originally published in sheep! January/February 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.