flat calf

Dummy newborns

Have you ever conducted a calving or lambing check, only to find a newborn that appears floppy, shows little interest in life, exhibits little to no suckling reflex, yet otherwise appears healthy?

If there’s no obvious reason, like the newborn being chilled in bad weather, there’s a chance your newborn could have Neonatal Maladjustment Syndrome also known as “dummy syndrome”.

Dr John Madigan, a veterinary professor at the University of California-Davis and an equine neonatal expert, identified the cause of these “dummy” newborns after years of research leading to the Madigan Squeeze Technique, a technique used to ‘wake up’ the newborns.

Dummy syndrome may occur following a prolonged difficult birth, or sometimes a very quick birth.

What should happen

It makes sense that when the lamb, calf, kid or foal is in utero, they can’t afford to be moving around too much as they could cause serious harm to their mother. Hence the fetus is “kept quiet,” by a supply of sedative neurosteroids via the placenta that keep it in a calm state until it is ready to be born.

It also makes sense that, as most livestock are prey species, they need to be able to produce offspring that will stand up soon after birth, start drinking to gain strength and ideally be ready to escape any predators who come looking for them.

Nature, as usual, has this covered. What is supposed to happen (and does in the overwhelmingly majority of cases) is when the birthing process begins, the supply of sedatives that keeps the fetus calm is switched off. It’s believed that it is actually the squeezing of the contractions during the second stage of labour that stimulates the “on switch” for the baby to wake up so that it is alert and aware of the world when it is born.

If, for some reason, this switch isn't activated during labor, the newborn will be in a depressed, sedated state.

Dr Madigan discovered this and he also developed a technique to get these newborns to ‘wake up’. The technique is designed to mimic the squeezing action of the dam’s contractions during the second stage of labour and it works best within the first 24 hours of being born.

So how is the Madigan Squeeze Technique used?

When applying the Madigan Squeeze Technique to a calf or a foal, a long soft rope is wrapped in three concentric loops around the baby's chest. Think of it as a gentle embrace: one loop will go in front of the shoulder, another behind it, and a third slightly further back, near the back of the ribs.

The rope is tied in such a way that pressure can be applied gently to the chest by pulling on the rope causing the chest to be gently squeezed. The animal may go into a sleepy state and lie down (if it was standing) with its eyes closed. Its breathing rate and heart rate will both slow down.

This position is maintained for 20 minutes with a constant pressure on the chest. After this time, the rope is slowly taken off and the calf or foal is then left alone. In many cases this will be enough to get the animal alert enough to want to stand up and start suckling.

If necessary this may need to be repeated several times in the first few days of the newborn’s life.

For lambs or kids, the technique is pretty much the same but a smaller thinner rope is used and the squeeze is held for only 10 minutes, not 20.

The technique is simple but needs to be done correctly to be effective. You should watch one (or more) of the many good videos on YouTube where the technique is demonstrated and if someone you know is familiar with the technique, get them to show you how to properly apply the technique before you find yourself needing to use it. When viewing YouTube videos I recommend finding videos created by vets so you know the information is accurate.

While it may not save every animal, the Madigan Squeeze is a practical tool for anyone who faces Neonatal Maladjustment Syndrome in their newborn livestock. Understanding how to properly perform the technique could make a difference in getting a weak newborn on its feet.

It's always wise to have a few more tools in the box. The Madigan Squeeze Technique could be just what you need.