What Every Cat Parent Should Know About Newborn Kittens

Amidst the fun of newborn kittens, keep an eye out for signs of their well-being to ensure they stay happy, healthy, and safe!

Updated February 23, 2024
yawning kitten in pile

Simultaneously adorable and fragile, newborn kittens can be a challenge for caretakers. It helps if you know what to expect in the first few days of life and what you can do to help your kittens maintain their body temperature and thrive in the outside world.

The Kitten's Body Temperature

When a kitten is born, it has the same body temperature as its mother. Although the temp drops slightly at birth, it goes back up when the kitten snuggles against mom, which should happen within 30 minutes of birth. Newborn kittens must be kept warm with a body temperature of 96°F to 100°F during their first three weeks of life.

Your Kitten Box Temperature

Newborn kittens stay close to their mother and littermates as a form of warmth. They can maintain a body temperature that's about 10°F higher than the temperature of the room. The room temperature where the kitten's box is kept should be between 85° and 90°F during the first week of your kittens' lives. You can lower the temp by about 5°F each week until you reach a steady 70°F.

Need to Know

Getting chilled is the greatest danger to a newborn kitten during this time.

Newborn Kittens

Hands holding newborn striped tabby kitten

When they're born, kittens are tiny, weighing only three or four ounces each. Although small, infant kittens are born with a sense of smell that enables them to find the mother's nipples to nurse. A healthy kitten usually starts nursing within one hour of birth and quickly settles on its favorite spot.

Importance of Nursing to Antibodies

Kittens must ingest enough colostrum within a few hours of birth to ensure survival. Besides nourishing, newborns receive necessary antibodies from their mother's milk during nursing. According to VCA Hospital, "It is extremely important that kittens receive colostrum, or the first milk, which is rich in antibodies and helps protect the newborns from infection." 

Need to Know

The protection they receive from the antibodies only lasts for a few weeks, and proper vaccination is necessary.

Watch for Struggling Newborns

Newborn kitten being fed with bottle

It is important to watch for struggling kittens, especially when they're first born. The runt of the litter, AKA the smallest kitten in the litter (sometimes significantly smaller), is particularly at risk for health problems. They might have difficulty gaining weight and may be weaker than the others. If you have a runt, check out our article about how to help them gain weight, care for them properly, and how much they should be gaining each week. 

Kittens at 1 Day Old

According to Country Vet Clinic, by the time the first kitten reaches the 24-hour mark, all their siblings should be born as well. Most kittens are born within 30 minutes of the last until labor and delivery are done. You should still leave mom alone during this time so she can get to know her babies privately without worrying about anyone nearby.

If your kittens are crying consistently and don't seem to stop, you may need to call the vet to ask if you should step in. They may not be consuming enough food, and mom might need some help. 

Don't Handle Your Kittens Unless It's Necessary

You shouldn't be holding or touching your kittens yet unless it's absolutely necessary. The general rule is to wait about two weeks to hold your little furry bundles of joy. If you touch them, mom probably won't leave them, but you'd be exposing them to bacteria and other things that could compromise their immune systems. 

Newborn Kittens and Sleep

A newborn kitten sleeps with their head tucked under their chest for the first 48 hours of life. In addition to nursing, the kitten will move around frequently, kicking, jerking, and whimpering. This is called activated sleep, and it helps the kitten develop muscle tone. Think of it as your newborn kitten's way of exercising.

The First Three Weeks of a Kitten's Life

During the first three weeks of life, kittens spend most of their time sleeping. They wake only for nursing sessions that can last up to 45 minutes. The mother cat, known as the queen in the cat world, instinctively knows how to feed and care for her babies. She knows to keep her kittens and their nest clean, and she stimulates the kittens' elimination reflex by licking each kitten's rectum and belly.

Eyes and Ears

Newborn kittens are born unable to hear or see. At birth, their eyes and ear canals are both closed. Kittens' ear canals begin to open when they are between five and eight days old. Their tiny ears, folded down at birth, begin to stand up and are entirely erect by the time they're three weeks old.

Kittens' eyes begin to open when they are approximately eight days old and open completely over about six days. Some kittens may take longer than others to open their eyes fully. Bloom Plaza Animal Hospital says, "When your kitten is first born and [their] eyes have not opened or developed, try to keep your kitten in a dark room away from the bright light that could damage her developing eyes." 

Need to Know

Never force your kitten's eyes open; they will open naturally. If they don't, you need to consult your vet.

A Kitten's Eye Color

When your kittens open their eyes, you'll notice their eyes are blue. They will remain that color for the first three weeks of their lives. After this time, they gradually change to their permanent eye color. It can take up to 12 weeks to make the full change.

Standing and Walking

Generally, kittens begin to crawl and try to stand when they reach about 14 days old. It usually takes two or three more days for the little kittens to stand completely. Once they succeed, many kittens may try to climb out of their box. Within another week, the kittens will walk, play, and run.

If Kittens Are Orphaned

If your litter of kittens, or a single kitten, has been orphaned for any reason, it's essential to know how to care for them. You should always be prepared if this happens, especially if your cat is a mom for the first time. My kids found a stray last year that happened to be pregnant, and we didn't know it. She definitely didn't look pregnant.

She gave birth to a couple of kittens, and once she was done giving birth, she left her kittens. Fortunately, we heard something odd under my son's bed, and viola, newborn kittens! She didn't seem to know what to do with them. So, ultimately, we had to care for them. We had to feed them, stimulate their bodies for potty time, and give them around-the-clock care. This is what you'll have to do if this happens, too. 

Quick Tip

If you're uncomfortable feeding and caring for newborn kittens, the vet may take them in until they're a little older, or some rescues will help you care for them in their newborn weeks.

Keep Kittens Contained in One Place

While this may sound easy, keeping kittens in the same area can be challenging without the right tools. Once they learn to climb, it's going to take some effort on your part to keep them together. If you have a big enough box, that might work, but most prefer a baby gate. That's what I have used in the past when I had kittens. It's easy and inexpensive, and I can use it for the kiddos that visit or the dogs later on. 

Weaning the Kittens Later On

Bottle Feeding a Fluffy Kitten

Eventually, around 4-5 weeks old, you'll need to start weaning your kittens off of mom (or the bottle if they were orphaned). Some kittens do just fine with the weaning process, whereas others may take a few weeks to get used to not entirely depending on mom. It's important to never rush your kittens when they're weaning, even if you're tired of helping them learn. Be patient, and let your kittens move at their own pace. 

Tips for Caring for Your Newborn Kittens

The best tip for caring for newborn kittens is to be prepared and learn all you can about the birthing process, as well as the signs of common medical issues.

Get Them Checked by Your Vet

Make sure you schedule a visit with your veterinarian soon after the kittens are born so they can make sure they're healthy and begin a chart for each with weights.

Back Off if Mom Is Stressed

It's ok to begin handling the kittens, but make sure that the mother isn't stressed. If you see her starting to "hide" her kittens, this means she's worried about their safety, and you might want to give her and the kittens some space until she feels less stressed.

The Stages of Kitten Life

Take note of which milestones your litter of kittens should be hitting each week. It's okay if some are faster or slower than others. You want to make sure they don't fall too far behind, but watch for all of them to be on about the same track (even though they're not going at the same pace). 

Related: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your Kitten's Developmental Stages

Make Your Own Weight Chart

Start your own weight chart at home to keep track of your kitten's weight and record it often. Weight gain is one of the best ways to make sure that your kittens are thriving, and the lack of it is a sign to call your veterinarian immediately. 

Quick Tip

Make sure you bring a copy of this chart when you go to your vet so they can look it over.

Keep an Eye on Mommy Cat

Newborn Kitten with mother

Keep an eye on the mom's care for her kittens. While it's completely natural for a mother cat to remove her kittens from her care at around 10 to 12 weeks of age, if you see her rejecting the litter or having trouble caring for them in the newborn stage, contact your veterinarian. You may need to step in and help with feeding and cleaning her babies.

Contact the Vet About Health Issues

Common health problems with kittens include diarrhea, worms, and upper respiratory infections. If you see signs of these conditions, call your vet immediately.

Preparation Is Everything

Raising a litter of newborn kittens can be a rewarding and memorable experience. Knowing what to expect from the queen and her kittens, combined with knowledge of proper infant kitten care and an awareness of signs of illness, helps to ensure a healthy litter.

What Every Cat Parent Should Know About Newborn Kittens