When I started raising French Lop rabbits in 1981, I read everything there was about rabbits in the library. What I read about kindling does was invariably: Do not disturb the doe, leave her alone. Do not handle the babies. The doe will not take care of the young if there is too much human scent on the babies.
When my first french lop litter arrived, I followed just that advice. Sweetie Pie, my first french lop, had her babies on the wire at 10 o'clock on a rainy night. I picked up the babies and put them in her nest box and left Sweetie Pie and the babies alone. The next morning, to my horror, half of the babies were dead and the remaining few were cold and dying. I called Sweetie Pie's breeder, Cathy, asking for help. She came and put the cold babies in the warm oven. Unfortunately, all still died except one. Sweetie Pie did not know what to do with this one survivor; neither did I. Cathy's mini lop raised this one baby named Valentina, who was born on St. Valentine's Day.
It has been a long time since this happened. Sweetie Pie and Valentina have both gone to bunny heaven, and I no longer have any french lops.
Over the years, I read, I listened and I learned through my experience and my mistakes, I decided that this leave the doe and babies alone attitude is entirely wrong for nestbox management. This method probably is practical for a commercial or a meat rabbit breeder, who may have a large number of does in production and losing babies may mean a financial loss but not an emotional hardship. For an Angora fancier as well as a true animal lover, I think the reach out and touch somebunny attitude is a much better way.
I do not do palpating. The doe usually tells me how she feels by her behavior. 2-3 weeks after mating, if she is bred, she picks up her sitting rag or hay in her mouth and starts to dig in the corners. I give the doe a nest box lined with clean rags, hay and/or torn paper towels on around the 26th day after mating. Also I give her some loose hay every day. In general if she is bred she'll be busy picking up the hay and whatever is in her cage and putting them into her nest box. She may even pull wool at this stage.
At this point, my involvement with the doe's effort in baby-raising intensifies. I prepare a nursery in my family room: A carrying cage big enough for the nestbox. I put the nestbox inside the carrying cage and close the cover. This is especially important if you also have cat in the house. Every morning and/or evening, depending on the doe's preference, I take the nestbox to the doe. The doe usually will jump into the nestbox right away to release the pressure in her nipples. She finishes her nursing in about 5 minutes. I take the box out of the doe's cage and check each baby to see whether it has gotten enough milk. The ones that got enough milk have a firm and fat tummy. The ones that did not get enough are soft. If there are some soft ones, I have two choices: I can supplement mama's milk with KMR (Kitten Milk Replacement, available in feed stores or pet supply shops); or I can put mama on her back and let the babies nurse. I usually ask for my husband to help me if I choose the latter method since the doe's back feet are strong that she may kick and harm or even kill the babies.
If it happens to be a large litter, that is, 8 or more, the latter method may not work since the doe may not be able to produce that much milk. The KMR certainly will come in handy. Hand feeding is a little messy but a lot of fun. I use a pet nurser for kittens. Making the hole is a little tricky: if it is too small , the babies do not have the power to suck the milk out of the bottle; if it is too large, the milk may come out so fast that it may choke the babies. I usually test the suitability by using very hot water. If hot water streams from the hole, it is too big, the rubber nipples is ruined; if it needs my fingers to squeeze to release the hot water, it is too small, try again; if the hot water drips from the hole, it is just right. It is a trial-and-error process, the hole that I find works well is a small cross cut with a toenail clipper.
At times a baby may have problem in urinating. I use my finger or a wet cotton swab gentlely rub the baby's little tummy and genital area. Baby usually will respond quite quickly.
One may ask why do I keep the nextbox away from the doe. The reasons are threefold: First of all, if the nestbox were placed with the doe all the time, the doe may nurse during the middle of the night. Sometimes a baby may hang on to the doe's nipple when she jumps out of the nestbox. The doe has no way of putting the baby back in the nestbox and this perfectly heathy baby usually dies of exposure. Second, the doe at times nibbles at the nest material including her own wool. Taking the nest box away lessens the chance of her getting woolblock. Third, the human touch. Since the nest box is in my house, I play with them frequently from day one. They are very accustomed to human handling. When they grow up they are usually very sweet, very attached to people. My does don't mind human scent on their babies since they were brought up exactly the same way. My does don't mind fostering other does' babies either. I do not have to use anything to divert the doe's attention to put in babies from other litters. I do it in plain view. They accept any baby readily without hesitation. I have had cases where two does shared one nestbox, one nursed in the morning and the other nursed at night. Both litters grew up fat and strong.
At 2 to 3 weeks old, the babies are jumping in and out of the nestbox. I still keep them separate from their mama for the following reasons: Less wear and tear on the mama and safety for the babies. At this time the babies have very small feet. They are also not very coordinated at this young age. I've known instances where a baby got its foot broken while caught in between the wires and had to be put down. I line my babies' cage with my old T-shirts or towels to prevent this possibility. Doing the same is not too practical when the doe is with the babies since the doe eats a lot and passes a lot. The cage could be a big mess in no time . In addition, I am sure we have all seen babies chasing their mama for milk. It certainly can be very stressful for the doe if she does not feel like nursing at that time. I feel that keeping doe and babies apart except at nursing time is a solution for both parties. And I am sure that they enjoy their quality time together much more.
At about 4 weeks old, the nestbox is removed; at about 6 or 7 weeks old, I try to separate the litter into several cages. I try not to keep more than 4 bunnies in one cage at this age. If the cage is too crowded, the bunnies' coats will not look and feel nice. Worse, sometimes they may even chew on each others wool.
At 7-8 weeks old, my bunnies are ready to go to their new homes. In addition to their excellent background, they are also very tame and very affectionate; they are generally loved by their new owners.
Since I've started this approach, the does that I raised are all very calm. They don't mind people in the rabbitry, they don't mind being groomed, they don't even mind people watching them mate, kindle and nurse. Best of all, I seldom lose any bunnies; they all grow up healthy and strong.