Solving the Mysteries of Obstetrics, Part 1 of 5
Normal Birth & Recognizing Dystocia

Maxine Kinne

Nothing is more rewarding than a trouble-free pregnancy and an easy delivery. But kidding can be scary, especially for novice owners. How do you know if labor and delivery are going right or not? What do you do? And when?

This series of articles explains how to recognize and correct most problems. Normal labor, dystocia (kidding problems), and the exploratory exam are all covered in both medical and common language. You'll learn what you need to know.

An uncomplicated birth is marked by inevitable progress, each stage leading to the next. When it stops, there is a reason. Even easy kidders can have trouble. Develop the skills to identify problems and either handle them or call for professional help. You wait five months for kids - don't blow it at the last minute!

Stages of Labor

1) Preparatory physical changes
2) Expulsion of the fetus(es)
3) Expulsion of the fetal membranes

Stage One Labor

First stage labor begins at the end of a 144- to 155-day pregnancy. It lasts from 12-36 hours and consists of the doe's physical changes. This can seem slower than molasses in February, in our world of instant gratification. Ligaments soften to allow some pelvic pliability. Mammary development accelerates. Uterine contractions push the first fetus and its membranes against the cervix to help dilate it. Cervical dilation is characterized by a vaginal discharge that often changes color and consistency during stage one.

Behaviors during first stage labor

Teeth grinding (discomfort)
Breathing faster than usual

Avoids eating and/or drinking
Vocalizes more or less than usual
Stands or walks more or less than usual
Avoids other goats
Suddenly more friendly or standoffish
Paws at the ground
Lies down and rises frequently
Licks or bites at her sides
Looks behind her

The full-term fetus sends hormonal signals to the mother to end the pregnancy. This starts a series of hormonal and physical events which leads to birth. Males may send this message a day or two sooner than females, and multiples can send it two or three days sooner than singles.

At the end of gestation, physical changes should be obvious in the doe's udder, pelvic ligaments and vulva. It is very helpful to feel the texture and fullness of the udder every day during the last week of gestation to detect even small changes within 24 hours before birth. The udder will feel slightly to very noticeably more full than it did the day before. Softening of the pelvic ligaments can also be monitored with daily palpation. (See:

Genetic, hormonal and nutritional differences make mammary system development unique to each doe in each pregnancy. The udder may begin to increase in size as early as two months into the pregnancy, but some develop little until just before or after birth. Udder development in other pregnancies may differ, as fetal numbers/genders in the litter influence udder development and milk quantity in each lactation. Under the same feeding and management conditions, there is more udder development in does carrying multiple males rather than singles or multiple females.

During the last month of gestation, increases in the hormone relaxin softens the pelvic ligaments, which causes cervical dilation and increases the area of the birth canal. A day or two before parturition, the ligaments are usually so soft that they are difficult or impossible to feel. When birth is imminent, it is unusual, but not abnormal, to be able to feel them. One ligament attaches at each side of the spine, halfway between the hips and pin bones. They angle toward the rear and away from the spine. (Imagine a peace symbol.) The pelvic ligaments feel like taut strings in males and non-pregnant females. If you learn to feel them, you will have a better idea of how close your doe is getting to her delivery day. Phil Moss has good pictures of pelvic ligaments at

Relaxin also steepens the slope of rump from the hips to the tail and from side-to-side. Rear leg angulation straightens to varying degrees, especially in the hocks and stifles. Within a few hours of birth, most does walk very loosely in the rear legs and move more slowly than usual. (Except when you want to get a good look at the "business end"...)

The perineum, the hairless area around the vulva, often bulges during the last month of gestation. Within 24 hours of birth, this bulge subsides somewhat, and the vulva loses tone and appears longer and more flat.

As the cervix begins to dilate, the cervical seal liquefies and leaks from the vulva. This discharge is not always a reliable sign, as an occasional doe can pass the entire thick cervical plug stuck to the first amniotic sac. The quantity, consistency and color of the discharge, and the length of time a doe passes it are all highly variable, although individuals tend to repeat this and other behavior and physical signs in subsequent parturitions. (It is very helpful to record all physical and behavioral signs in a notebook for review before a doe's next birth.) The normal discharge is typically thin and clear, the same color and consistency as raw egg white. As first stage proceeds, it becomes thicker and streaked with white. When delivery is getting pretty close, is thick and yellowish-tan. Unusual discharges may or may not indicate trouble, but stay alert for potential problems. A slightly blood-tinged discharge usually means that the birth is close. A rusty brown discharge, especially if it is thick and ropy, often signals the presence of a dead fetus which may or may not accompany live ones. Call your veterinarian, as dead a dead fetus can be difficult for the doe to pass.

Many does use a special soft, nickering "mother voice" shortly before they begin hard labor, so kidding is usually close when this is heard. They continue talking to the kids with this seldom-heard voice for a short time after delivery.

Stage Two Labor

Second stage labor consists of the doe's expulsive efforts and delivery of all kids. Uterine contractions and weak abdominal presses (contractions) become more intense and closer together. During uterine contractions in first stage labor, a doe may briefly stretch and raise her tail over her rump or lie down and momentarily hold her breath. As hard labor begins with abdominal presses, she usually lies down on one side and extends one or both hind legs and may bellow with each effort. An occasional doe stands or squats to contract and deliver. If you time contractions, do not be alarmed by short resting intervals. General progress is the important feature.

The cervix is usually open, or mostly so, when a fluid-filled sac appears. The fetus is carried inside two separate sacs, the chorion and amnion membranes. (For the sake of simplicity here, I loosely refer to them as fetal membranes.) The outer (chorionic) membrane ruptures a thick fluid inside the uterus, or it appears at the vulva like a water balloon. If it ruptures inside, the only other membrane you may see is the amnion, unless it also ruptures inside. These unique-smelling birth fluids dribble from the doe's vulva. When you're not sure whether a doe is urinating or has ruptured a membrane, smell it. (Don't be squeamish - it's just part of the kid's gift wrapping!) Many does rise to lick this fluid for variable lengths of time.

A fetus may fill the sac almost immediately, or require more contractions be pushed into the birth canal. The birth canal is the length of the pelvic floor between the vulva and the pelvic brim; the uterus is just beyond the pelvic brim. The miniature goat's birth canal is quite short, from 3" to 5" or so in length.

Normal Birth Position of a Fetus

Illustrated by Sunny Larsen

A fetal head may be accompanied by one or both front legs (anterior presentation). If the head is out with no legs, insert the length of one finger beside the head and feel all the way around it for a foot. A foot beside the neck can be gently extended to streamline the fetal bulk in the birth canal to make room for it to advance. In a normal birth, the fetus should slip out with a few more contractions.

Many veterinarians insist on extracting both front legs to accompany the head. This is not necessary in goats, as the fetus is sufficiently streamlined with only a head and one leg out. It can take too much valuable time to find and extend the second front leg, and it's not worth the time or trauma to the doe. In fact, when the fetal shoulders are very bulky, it can be advantageous to put one front leg back inside the doe and align it beside the fetus to reduce bulky shoulders.

Does with good pelvic capacity are usually able to deliver kids head-first when both front legs are retained. Sometimes, gentle, steady traction on the head, pulling the fetus in a downward arc toward the doe's hind legs is all that is required. If the fetus does not advance, you will have to retrieve one of its retained front legs.

Posterior presentations are normal if both hind feet are present. In a breech presentation, one or both hind legs are folded underneath the kid - this malpresentation has to be corrected before birth can proceed. With two hind feet out, extract the fetus as quickly as possible. The umbilical cord is compressed by the birth canal, and a backward fetus may gasp and inhale fluid from the uterus. Quick delivery reduces this possibility which may result in drowning or pneumonia.

For up to a few minutes following birth, you can feel a pulse in an unbroken umbilical cord, a transfer of the last oxygen-rich blood from the placental cotyledons into the kid. It is important not to break the cord until this transfer is complete and the umbilicus collapses. If it is imperative to move the kid before blood transfer is complete, the umbilical cord may be tied off securely (dental floss  works very well) about two inches from the kid's belly and again one inch beyond that. The cord can be safely cut between the two ligatures. Severing a pulsing umbilical cord without tying it off twice, once for the kid and once for the mother, will result in less blood available for the fetus. In normal circumstances, when the umbilicus does not break on its own, it can be shredded apart with your thumbnails.

Some does rise and turn attentively to the newborn immediately, and others remain recumbent until the newborn makes noise. Many does are reluctant to stand after a difficult birth, and it is a good idea to assist them to do so.

Normal timing between one kid and the next is extremely variable, ranging from almost immediately to about 90 minutes. Exceptionally attentive mothers may take a long time before starting on the next delivery. Does should be watched closely for signs of the next delivery, whether it is another kid or a placenta. If a fetus is poorly positioned, the doe may show few signs of delivering. If you suspect additional kids, do not wait more than 60 minutes after the last birth to check for others.

Nursing and milking stimulate uterine contractions through the action of the hormone oxytocin. Nursing can hasten the delivery of another kid by provoking this oxytocin response. Oxytocin causes extremely hard uterine contractions and should never be given to a doe in labor, as the strength of these contractions can force a fetus through the uterine wall.

The most reliable way to find out if there is another fetus is to feel inside the doe. A finger exam may tell you enough. If not, check inside the uterus with a clean, well-lubricated hand and forearm (nails clipped short and jewelry removed!). First, wash the doe's perineum, then your hand and forearm. Hold her tail up and out of the way. Press your fingertips together to make a gradual entry. Gently advance your hand until it is inside the uterus. Spread your fingers wide apart in a fan shape and gently rotate your hand back and forth a few times as though you are waving. An empty uterus jiggles like a bowlful of jelly, but an extra fetus is enough weight to prevent the jiggle. Putting your hand into the uterus can introduce bacteria, so a course of antibiotic treatment is well advised. Consult your veterinarian for recommendations on antibiotic therapy.

"Bumping" is a slightly less dependable way to locate another fetus. Stand behind the doe, spread your fingers wide apart, and lift her abdomen just in front of the udder. With a slight up-and-down motion, you may feel the weight of another fetus. If the doe has done her job alone, it is unnecessary for you to examine her.

Stage Three Labor

This stage begins after the last kid is born and ends when all of the placenta(s) have been expelled. Most does pass the first placenta within two hours after the last kid, and all should have been expelled by 3 hours. It is rare to expel a placenta between fetuses, but it can happen. There may be one placenta for the litter, one for each kid, or any other combination. It is common to have two placentas for triplets, one nearly twice the size of the other. Average placental weight for Pygmy does is 0.6 pounds for one fetus and 1.1 pounds for two.

Retained membranes may indicate the presence of a retained fetus. If the membranes are visible and fail to advance for an hour, examine the uterus. If you do not find another fetus, the membranes can often be dislodged by lifting the abdomen in front of the udder or elevating the whole front end. Do not pull on them! Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of using oxytocin for a retained placenta. Does should not be allowed to eat placenta as it may cause digestive upsets for up to two weeks following the birth.

Solving the Mysteries of Obstetrics

1   Normal Birth (you are here)
1a  Photos of a Normal Kidding

2  Assisting Dystocia

3   Special Pregnancy Problems
4   Hereditary and Congenital Defects

5   Causes of Dystocia (chart)

Home      Articles      Links


Copyright 1997
Updated 2002
All rights reserved