If you've never been present at the birthing of kittens, you'd be amazed at how mama kitty's natural instincts kick in and guide her calmly through the process. She knows just what to do, breathing, pushing and then cleaning the tiny newborns. Then it's time for the babies' first meal.
When it comes time for newborn kittens to belly up to the bar for the first time, they find their source of food through a team effort. Kittens have the ability to smell the scent of their mother's milk, so even though their tiny eyes are closed, the babies instinctively find their way to the waiting nipples. Mama cat helps out, too, by positioning herself for easy access to the kittens, sometimes reaching out a paw to gently redirect a baby who might be headed in the wrong direction.
Most cats intuitively know the right way to start their kittens nursing, but occasionally a new mother will have difficulty understanding exactly what she needs to do. In these instances you can help out by gently laying your cat on her side and then positioning the kittens next to her tummy and the milk bar. If the kittens seem to be the ones having a hard time understanding what to do, one at a time, gently rub a nipple against the side of a kitten's face or up against her tiny mouth. This should cause the kitten to naturally open her mouth and you can then place the nipple inside it. Once she has a hold, her natural suckling instinct should kick in.
How Long Do Kittens Nurse?
All cats are different, but most mommy cats start weaning their babies between the four and five week mark. For the first three weeks after giving birth, your mama kitty will spend the majority of her time nursing and caring for the babies, but after the third week she will gradually spend less and less time allowing them to nurse and even leave the nest before they are satisfied. By the time the kittens are 6 or 7 weeks old, they should be off of mommy's milk and eating soft but solid food.
Lending a Hand with Weaning
When the kittens are about 4 weeks old they will be pretty mobile and starting to explore. It is also the time when their mother will start making herself less available for feedings. That's when you can start putting soft food where the babies can easily find it. You can provide kitten kibble soaked in kitten milk replacer or even bits of canned kitten food. In the wild the mother cat would start bringing prey back to the nest to teach the kittens to eat solid food instead of nursing. Since your cat won't have access to wild game for her children, the responsibility of providing the solid food falls on your shoulders.
Elle Di Jensen has been a writer and editor since 1990. She began working in the fitness industry in 1987, and her experience includes editing and publishing a workout manual. She has an extended family of pets, including special needs animals. Jensen attended Idaho and Boise State Universities. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.