The lambing process has evolved over thousands of years. In the early years, ewes would give birth without any assistance. Although this remains the usual norm, it is necessary to have an understanding of the whole process including how long a sheep should be in labour. This is because pregnant livestock may face some complications which require immediate attention else mortality rates are likely to increase. The knowledge and skill to determine how long a sheep should be in labour is of the essence to allow for timely assistance when the need arises.

The Lambing Process

The lambing process is controlled by a complex system of hormonal changes. It is naturally the lamb which decides the exact lambing timeframe. However, the normal gestation length of the ewe lasts for about 143 to 147 days. The birthing process is divided into 3 stages which are, the first labour stage, the second labour stage as well as the third and final stage labour. These combined help to determine how long a sheep should be in labour. Note that delays are most likely due to complications that may be detrimental to both the ewe and the lamb if not handled appropriately, hence the need for the appropriate knowledge and skillset for the task. An ideal delivery should normally take place within 45 to 60 minutes. Once the front legs are visible, lambs should be born within 30 to 45 minutes. After the first lamb is born, subsequent lambs are normally delivered within 30 to 45 minutes.  Slight variations may occur and are considered as normal. An important point to be aware of is that the exact timeframe of how long a sheep should be in labour is determined by the amount of time each labour stage takes.

First Stage Labour

This stage often takes about 3 to 6 hours. It is often identifiable by the dilation of the cervix. Take note that the timeframe can vary in relation to the maturity of the ewe. In order get an ideal estimate of how long a sheep should be in labour, farmers should be aware that the timeframe is more rapid in older ewes and so ought to factor in this point. The first labour stage is characterised by changes in the animal behavioural system. These behavioural changes include declined feeding from the ewe. According to research, during the first labour stage, the ewe does not come to the feed trough or leaves early before other sheep in the group. Another common characteristic is the ewe seeks for a separate shelter and constantly sniffs at the area, alternatively lying or standing. There are periods of increased activity with abdominal contractions lasting about 15 to 30 seconds. The process of how long a sheep a sheep should be in labour is often confusing for new farmers. As such, they should keep in mind that the first labour stage can last about 12 to 24 hours. Additionally, another means of determining how long a sheep should be in labour is by identifying a thick string of mucus that hangs from the vulva. This is an indication that the ewes is about to give birth. The bouts of straining begin to occur frequently, usually every 2 to 3 minutes. At the end of the first labour stage, the cervix must be fully dilated. When the first labour stage exceeds 24 hours, assistance may be necessary.

Second Stage Labour

The second labour stage often takes about an hour. The timeframe may however slightly vary hence the need to fully understand the entire process. This ideally helps farmers to determine the exact period of how long a sheep should be in labour. The second stage is often represented by the expulsion of the foetus. The water bag is raptured followed by a rush of fluid. The amniotic sac then appears at the vulva and frequently raptures at this stage. To add on, reflex and involuntary contractions of the abdominal muscle and diaphragm occur in a bid to expel the foetus. Farmers should be aware that the delayed rapture of the amnion, referred to as the lamb being born with skin over its nose often results in death. This indicates the importance of being able to effectively determine how long a sheep should be in labour. It allows farmers to recognise any delays that can be detrimental to livestock. Ideally, in ewes with multiple lambs, the period of how long a sheep should be in labour varies from 10 to 60 minutes. If this stages exceeds an hour, intervention is needed.

Third Labour Stage

The third labour stages often takes places within 2 to 3 hours of the end of the second labour stage. It is basically completed by the expulsion of the foetal membranes. The lamb should ideally be left for 1 to 2 minutes with the umbilical vessels still intact.  Some farmers prefer to expel the placenta about 30 to 60 minutes after delivery. It is not advisable to leave the placenta for over 24 hours after the completion of the lambing process as it exposes livestock to diseases and attack by predators. When determining how long a sheep should be in labour, it is of the utmost importance to note that delays in the previously mentioned stages require immediate attention. This is termed dystocia.


This is the term used to describe difficult births. As previously mentioned, this problem is easily identifiable by how long a sheep is in labour. The common causes of dystocia in flock include abortion, disproportionate size of the ewe and the lamb, failure of the cervix to dilate, vaginal prolapse and deformed lamb. According to experts, determining exactly how long a sheep should be in labour is often a difficult task for most shepherds. Another difficult task is determining how to be assistance if the ewe has been in labour for more than the suggested time. As such, it is recommended to either consult a skilled individual or preferably a veterinarian to check on the progress and offer the necessary assistance. Ideally, assistance should be sought when the ewe has been straining for over an hour without anything to show for it. Take care not to attempt delivery when the cervix is not fully dilated as this can damage the ewe.