I checked into the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station this morning at about 3:30. The keeper on duty before me reported nothing unusual. She had gotten a few very brief glimpses of the cub as Bai Yun shifted position and had heard the cub vocalize on a number of occasions. However, she had also noted several long bouts of resting for both mother and cub.
This was good to hear. After the fatiguing event that is labor, new panda mothers are met with a demanding neonate who needs all of her attention to stay warm and comfortable. The cubs are largely hairless and lacking in body fat; thus, Mom’s warm embrace is essential to their survival in those early days. To keep such a small cub warm, the much larger mother must hold the baby up off the ground in her arms.
This means Bai Yun cannot simply sprawl out in the den to rest. She must instead engage in a balancing act that allows her to rest while snuggling that cub against her body. What’s more, she has to change positions every 20 to 60 minutes to allow the cub access to her teats for lactation. This active postpartum schedule is not unlike that of a human mother who has just given birth, except that, unlike a human, Bai Yun never sets her newborn down. Her own paws and arms are her neonate’s bassinet.
Throughout the early, dark hours of this morning, Bai Yun shifted from resting posture to a nursing posture regularly. Though I was never able to get a good glimpse of the cub nursing, there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest nursing was occurring. Bai Yun held herself in a familiar posture, bracing the newborn against her upper abdomen. She periodically moved the cub across her body as she pushed the youngster from one nipple to the next. The cub vocalized in protest at the adjustments but grew quiet shortly thereafter, probably because it was latched on and suckling.
Hopefully, one of the panda team members will confirm nursing soon, either by observing the cub latched on or by seeing smears of milk on Bai Yun’s fur after a presumed nursing bout. And once Bai Yun relaxes enough to give us a good view of the cub—something we have yet to obtain—we hope to see a full, distended belly that indicates it is well fed.
So far, so good.
Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bai Yun Gives Birth.